The physiological role of cortisol as a stress hormone is complex. In the short term, acute stress is mediated via the adrenergic system, but this cannot be sustained indefinitely. The body switches to cortisol to try to moderate the stress response. Prolonged levels of cortisol are, however, detrimental and any advantages from switching from the adrenal response to cortisol will not be sustained for long. Excess amounts of cortisol have adverse effects on the mitochondria, immune system, matrix regulation, brain tissue, immune system, insulin metabolism, gut and liver. In the immune system we see a shift toward TH1 (T-helper cell 1) action in the short term, but the continual secretion of high levels of cortisol from the adrenal glands will eventually induce a TH2 (T-helper cell 2) state rigidity. This can result in higher incidences or skin problems such as eczema, fungal infections, persistence of intractable infections such as verrucae and can cause Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which can result in poor metabolic functioning of the whole body. At its most extreme TH2 rigidity can eventually result in serious conditions such as cancer. The skeletal tensegrity of the body is disrupted which inter alia compromises the bones, nerves, joints, fascia, muscles and ligaments.
The hypothalamic hormone, corticotrophin-releasing hormone has receptors in the gut. Over secretion can cause an increase of permeability of the gut resulting in vicious cycles of allergy, intoxication, liver overload and systemic disease triggered by antigens leaking through the gut lining and causing imbalance within the body.
Cortisol also plays a role in cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Chronic obesity can lead to insulin resistance type 2 diabetes. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone sharing a receptor with the anabolic hormone testosterone within the muscles. If cortisol is constantly excreted at high levels over long periods of time, there will be displacement of testosterone in the muscles. This will then result in muscle atrophy and under performance. Diabetes, obesity and muscle atrophy all cause potential health problems.
From a holistic health viewpoint, the effect of stress on the extracellular matrix (ECM) is very important as cortisol plays a dominant role in the natural degradation and repair process of the ECM. The diurnal rhythm of cortisol should be such that it ebbs around midnight where a slight inflammatory state clears up any diseased tissue that has been excreted from within the cells and thus transferred into the ECM. These unwanted toxins can then be drained by the blood and lymph. Insomnia due to stresses such as domestic and occupational worry will disturb this vital cycle, keeping cortisol levels too high at night. The important matrix cleansing action cannot take place. If degradation and repair are disturbed in the ECM, we will see matrix rigidity that will prevent proper cell to cell and matrix to cell communication. This will result in cellular disease and eventually dedifferentiation. Cortisol may also adversely alter the correct mitochondrial function and its prolonged secretion can interfere with ATP production thus reducing cellular efficiency. High levels of cortisol over prolonged periods can deplete neurons and cause memory loss. Cortisol shares receptors in the brain with aldosterone, a balance between the two is needed to lay down long-term memory. So cortisol excess may play a direct role in dementia.
Naturopathy has various ways of holistically assisting stress. Homotoxicology can help to detoxify and drain the ECM. Adaptogenic and nervine herbs can also help control stress. Ayurveda and other traditional forms of medicine have been used to balance emotions and cleanse and tone the body for thousands of years. Meditation can often reduce stress and anxiety. Prevention is always better than cure. It is clearly our duty to help ourselves and others avoid adverse stressful situations as much as possible by giving love and laughter.