10

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When are high levels of cortisol appropriate?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created November 04, 2011 at 4:31 PM

I've been reading a lot about cortisol recently, and it seems that the complexities of this hormone in terms of what effects it, and in turn what it effects, have been drastically oversimplified in the Paleo community. Like many other substances and states -- cholesterol, inflammation, antioxidants, even insulin -- the optimal state is not to have none, but to have an appropriate amount at the appropriate time.

In particular, the idea that lowering cortisol is always a healthful strategy, is as misguided as indiscriminately aspiring to lower cholesterol.

Can anyone cite situations in which high cortisol is desirable, list useful things it does in the body, or provide any other relevant knowledge about cortisol levels?

Here are just a few possibly counter-intuitive facts about cortisol I've come across that I think merit more weight.

(1) Cortisol has differential effects depending on insulin state. In the paper Regulation of Lipogenesis by Glucocorticoids and Insulin in Human Adipose Tissue, which I am only just beginning to digest and understand, the authors state:

In the fasting state, low insulin levels and high endogenous GC levels will stimulate lipolysis and simultaneously switch off lipogenesis though serine phosphorylation of ACC1, decreasing fuel storage and increasing FFA availability for other more metabolically active tissues. Conversely, in the fed state, insulin levels are high, and here insulin and GC may act together to promote lipid storage.

So it seems plausible that if you were trying to lose fat, and you had already taken measures to lower your insulin levels, then higher cortisol would be beneficial. Whereas if your insulin levels are high, more cortisol would only increase your fatness.

(2) High cortisol raises leptin, that elusive, misunderstood and longed-for hormone.

I'm not going to discuss this point further, because leptin is another very complex topic that I think is not well understood by almost anyone. It's just a point for consideration.

(3) Cortisol is anti-inflammatory. Given this fact, it makes sense that long-term high levels of cortisol could be indicative of, and a response to, chronic inflammation, thus the association of high cortisol with disease states. On the other hand, there is a certain sense in which we want regular anti-inflammatory action in the body, just as we want anti-oxidant action. So if cortisol rises after intense exercise, for example, that is probably desirable.

This situation is comparable to what we want from insulin. Even the most staunch low-carber needs an appropriate insulin response after eating. What they don't want is any excess insulin, or especially chronically elevated insulin.

(4) Levels of cortisol are dependent not just on adrenal production, but on regeneration outside the adrenals and urinary loss of cortisol metabolites. Thus, your levels of cortisol are not necessarily indicative of how hard your adrenals are working! As we know from adrenal fatigue, lowering levels of cortisol can actually be indicative of adrenal stress, and the inability to keep up with demand.

That last bit is crucial to understand if you are concerned about stressing your adrenals. An important strategy to consider for relieving adrenal stress is making sure that the cortisol your adrenals do make is used as long as possible. That means it is regenerated outside of the adrenal glands, and that the metabolites aren't lost in the urine.

This study, Dietary Macronutrient Content Alters Cortisol Metabolism Independently of Body Weight Changes in Obese Men suggests that a ketogenic diet has this cortisol-sparing effect, independent of weight loss.

In obese men, an HF-LC diet increased whole-body regeneration of cortisol by 11??-HSD1 and reduced the rate of inactivation of cortisol by 5??- and 5??-reductases.

Glycyrrhizic acid, found in licorice, also has this effect, and that's why it is often recommended for adrenal support.

In short, if something raises (or for that matter, lowers) your cortisol levels, the desirability of that effect is not necessarily easy to interpret. It could be causing fat loss or fat gain depending on environment. It could be an appropriate, temporary, anti-inflammatory response to something essentially healthful, like exercise, or it could be an indicator of chronic inflammation. It could indicate overproduction and therefore an adrenal stress, or it could indicate better regeneration and less clearance: a relief of adrenal stress. Like just about everything else we encounter, cortisol is not a universal villain.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 05, 2011
at 12:15 AM

Quilt, actually my question was *exactly* about context and specifics.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on November 04, 2011
at 10:17 PM

My answer to you is simple. Cortisol spikes acutely are signs of great health. Chronic cortisol elevation or chronic spikes at the wrong time of the day are a huge problem. Again since we are not talking context and specifics this is how I would answer you.

6b8d12fc3e43179f9ae1765a4d1a9dc2

(5914)

on November 04, 2011
at 08:31 PM

Lol, that's exactly what I was going to say but lion! :)

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 04, 2011
at 07:56 PM

Oh my gosh! I definitely don't want to increase my fatness! :-)) Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Medium avatar

(8239)

on November 04, 2011
at 06:07 PM

And not all "stress" is equal. Sadly, the term has become synonymous with "out of balance" and "out of kilter" and a host of maladies. There's "bad" stress (with which we're all familiar), but also "good" stress that goes with extending your reach beyond your current grasp. Creative endeavors, going all out in some area of your life. Trying jumping out of an airplane. With an instructor and parachutes strapped to your back, let me add.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:51 PM

Well said. And I like the falling in love bit.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:48 PM

Exactly. Stress isn't itself bad. Only if it's too much, for too long.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:44 PM

Right. Or a net negative. It depends very much on what else is happening.

7d64d3988de1b0e493aacf37843c5596

(2861)

on November 04, 2011
at 04:51 PM

That’s the reason I think there is a lot of power to the paleo principle / ancestral health. Creating diets and strategies to impact cholesterol or insulin or cortisol or any particular biochemical are all shots in the dark based upon very limited information, especially in how the whole body inter-relates with itself. Probably for any diet under the sun you can find some biochemical positives if you approach each chemical simply and not in relation to everything else going on, but we have no way to really tell if it is net positive.

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3 Answers

11
Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:45 PM

I don't know of anything health-related that you didn't mention, but when a person first falls in love their cortisol levels become high. Cortisol is needed for high-energy, high-vitality functioning, and I don't think that this is a problem, only if it doesn't go down in the evening. "Oh noes my cortisol is high" is probably misguided if your life is very stimulating and enjoyable and you constantly have high energy levels and enthusiasm. This mode of living is associated with health and slow aging, so whether or not the extra cortisol is harming you, it is probably insignificant within the context of what it enables. There is more negative to the negative stress response than just cortisol, I wouldn't equate the negative effects of pathological anxiety with the positive effects of enthusiasm just because both raise cortisol levels, there's more to it. Those whose lives are very stimulating can still easily relax and sleep well with low cortisol when it is appropriate, whereas with pathological anxiety it's not like that.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:51 PM

Well said. And I like the falling in love bit.

3
65125edd5aafad39b3d5b3a8b4a36bb7

on November 04, 2011
at 05:44 PM

When you are being chased by a bear.

6b8d12fc3e43179f9ae1765a4d1a9dc2

(5914)

on November 04, 2011
at 08:31 PM

Lol, that's exactly what I was going to say but lion! :)

3
C5082c4abf17dfef99898a80bca8848b

on November 04, 2011
at 05:35 PM

high levels of cortisol are appropriate when high levels of stress are appropriate. If you are in a situation eg(flight, fright or freeze) having huge doses of anti-inflammatory in the blood is a good thing (pain management etc.) Part of the problem is that this is meant to be a short term response that gets prolonged. So more appropriate recommendation is to avoid prolonged/chronic high levels of cortisol, basically too much of almost anything isn't good for you.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on November 04, 2011
at 05:48 PM

Exactly. Stress isn't itself bad. Only if it's too much, for too long.

Medium avatar

(8239)

on November 04, 2011
at 06:07 PM

And not all "stress" is equal. Sadly, the term has become synonymous with "out of balance" and "out of kilter" and a host of maladies. There's "bad" stress (with which we're all familiar), but also "good" stress that goes with extending your reach beyond your current grasp. Creative endeavors, going all out in some area of your life. Trying jumping out of an airplane. With an instructor and parachutes strapped to your back, let me add.

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