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The highs and lows of cortisol

Last updated on June 18th, 2019

You might think only of cortisol in relation to stress or cortisone in relation to something that gets injected into injured joints.

Your body makes both.

It makes cortisol first. Cortisol gets lousy press at times for its role in weight gain when in excess, but in the right amounts it actually does wonderful things in the body. It helps you to bounce out of bed in the mornings with vitality, prevents hypoglycaemia, acts as an anti-inflammatory, helps you deal with stress, and prevents overactivity of the immune system.

It’s only when we produce too little or too much that it can be a problem. Both scenarios are associated with prolonged stress. Initially, if stress is ongoing, the body will produce more cortisol and other challenges in the body may begin to unfold. This can include changes to the amount of fat and glucose in our blood and with body fat distribution. If the high cortisol output continues for a long time, cortisol levels may then drop low with stiffness on waking, conditions of inflammation and a deep, unrelenting fatigue kicking in.

When some of the body tissues need less cortisol, the body deactivates it to cortisone. In other words, cortisol is converted into cortisone. There is an enzyme called 11b-HSD that catalyses this but you don’t need to worry about these hard to remember names. Sometimes the cortisol is deactivated to assist the regulation of your salt-water balance—in other words how much fluid you retain.

However, cortisone can also be converted back into cortisol. Body fat in particular tends to do this, which is not so fun as this can negatively impact fat loss efforts. If we remember that we are completely geared for survival and that cortisol tells every cell of your body that food is scarce (as historically, our chronic stressors were wars, floods and famines – times where there was often a food shortage), it makes sense that another of its roles is to slow down your metabolic rate.

When cortisol is high, this can lead you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly than you may have in the past, and it promotes body fat deposition around the middle as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine. So, although it has some not-so-nice effects when in excess, your body really does have your best interests at heart.

And a big part of my work is to help you better understand the messages your body might be getting so you can address what needs to change to enjoy the great health you deserve!

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