<p>Our resident wellbeing, stress and mental health guru Ann McCracken delves into the biology behind our stress response...</p>
When I ask my delegates if they have heard of Cortisol there is usually a mixed response. Some have heard of it but don’t know what it does and it becomes evident that it is not a well understood hormone.
Basically it is an anti-inflammatory chemical which acts to re-balance the body when it is under threat.
This makes me want to ask the question – Why is the body inflamed in the first place?
It may help to explore what inflammation is then come back to cortisol.
Inflammation is a natural, innate response to injury/pain/physical illness/emotional upset.
Take the example of a sprained ankle. The damage is a ‘red-alert’ to pattern recognition receptors (PRR) to release various inflammatory mediators, which in turn initiate widening of the blood vessels. This allows increased blood flow to a physical injury site, which warms the site and carries plasma and leukocytes to the site of the injured tissue. The blood vessels become more permeable, allowing the plasma and leukocytes to flow through the vessel walls and into the injured tissue to do their work. Emigration of plasma into tissue also means fluid build-up, which means swelling. At the same time, the body releases an inflammatory mediator called bradykinin which increases pain sensitivity at the site and discourages usage of the injured area. These sensations – heat, redness, swelling, pain, and a loss of function – are annoying and familiar, but they are absolutely necessary for proper healing.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, made from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney and released into the blood which transports it all round the body. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. Cortisol’s far-reaching, systemic effects, play many roles in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain a harmonious balance.
Almost every cell in the body contains receptors for cortisol and so it can have lots of different actions depending on the type of cell it is interacting upon. The effects it can have include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and helping development of the foetus.
When the “Fight or Flight” stress response is initiated in the body due to a real or perceived threat, adrenaline alerts the body and cortisol supports by narrowing the arteries, while adrenaline increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster. Cortisol is responsible for several changes that take place when a person feels anxious or excited, including heightened memory functions, lower sensitivity to pain and a burst of energy, all designed to enable someone to act quickly and efficiently when they perceive they are in a stressful situation.
Cortisol is now regularly measured to indicate ‘stress levels’ as part of a well man/woman check up and four samples throughout the day are required, as cortisol levels naturally vary significantly between morning and evening. This allows a clear profile to be established.
Featured image by Benjah-bmm27 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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