Hormones - Spotlight on Cortisol
Hormones are like our internal messengers and our bodies are constantly responding to and acting on these signals. For example, at ovulation, usually around Day 12 – 14 of a woman's menstrual cycle, increased estrogen levels trigger a sharp rise in Luteinizing Hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland, causing release of the egg from the follicle. Another example would be after eating, our body responds to the level of glucose by releasing the hormone insulin which signals the body to store glucose as glycogen.
A hormone does not exist in a vacuum. Some hormones dramatically affect other hormones; high levels of one can interfere with the action of another. Hormones also respond to the sleep/wake cycle of the natural world.
When hormones work in sync you will feel balanced, healthy, happy, and you will have vitality and energy. When out of balance, you may feel worn out, have moods that are up and down, find it hard to lose weight and generally feel out of sorts. Hormone imbalance can manifest in many different ways. In this post I will focus on cortisol as this is a hormone that tends to get more out of control than other hormones. When it does, it can interfere with other hormones and can be a cause of things like PMS, thyroid hormone imbalance, fatigue, weight gain etc.
Cortisol is primarily controlled by our lower or 'reptilian' brain. This inate, deep part of our brain is not part of our 'thinking brain'. It acts instinctively, having been developed when survival depended on running from predators. I like to think of it as a hyper-vigilant bodyguard - constantly looking out for dangers. In present times predators have been replaced by many other perceived ' threats' such as deadlines, work pressure, financial worries, busy lives and anything else that causes periods of prolonged stress.
Sometimes when we think of hormone imbalance, we might presume that our body is producing too much of one hormone and not enough of another hormone. This can be the case, but it can also be the case that our bodies are producing enough hormones but the actions of these hormones are being blocked. For example, cortisol is released in times of stress. If stress is prolonged then cortisol will continue to be released in to our bloodstream. However, cortisol has the ability to fit into receptor sites on cells that are meant for progesterone. This means that it blocks progesterone's action in the body. Progesterone is needed to balance oestrogen, so if progesterone is blocked from doing its work it could lead to an oestrogen imbalance. This may manifest as breast tenderness, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, headaches or trouble sleeping.