Is Cortisol Good or Bad?

Monday, September 01, 2008
By: Byron J. Richards,
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

Many people have come to associate excess cortisol with a fat stomach, which happens to be true.  However, there are several sides to the cortisol coin worth understanding.  Several new studies highlight the vital need for cortisol in health and help to shed light on what goes wrong.

Cortisol plays a number of important roles in health.  It turns on the light switches in your body so you can get moving in the morning.  It elevates when you exercise so you can perform at a higher level without friction, assisting you to get a refreshing response to exercise.  It buffers the stress you are under, and like oil in a car engine it enables you to operate at a higher pace with proper lubrication so you don’t overheat.

A new study shows that cortisol is vital to nerve survival under stress1.  This is quite interesting because excessive cortisol from long term stress damages nerves.  The new information shows that under stress cortisol “lubricates” nerves to assist in their flexibility and adaptability, so that stress can be tolerated and managed.  This data is consistent with the release of BDNF under stress, which also maintains plasticity while helping nerves form new connections.  A picture of synergy emerges as to how nerves tolerate stress and successfully overcome challenges, even adapting to new forms of ongoing stress.  This requires adequate cortisol and BDNF, working together.

If cortisol runs low then nerves overheat.  If BDNF runs low then nerves die and new changes cannot be made.

Another new study shows that under chronic stress, cortisol does not work right once too much inflammation2 sets into place.  The researchers found that when cortisol was no longer functional of friendly (meaning that it could now cause brain damage), it meant that the gene inflammatory signal known as NF-kappaB was excessively turned on.  This problem is consistent the feelings of wear and tear from stress over a longer period of time.  Of course, when stress continues too long then depression and burn out result, meaning cortisol and BDNF have crashed and are no longer able to cope, and inflammatory NF-kappaB feels like a major thunderstorm just went through your brain’s neighborhood.

Pantethine is an ideal nutrient for stress management, as it directly fuels your adrenals to make cortisol while also helping your brain make BDNF.  However, it is critical to prevent over-activation of NF-kappaB in your brain, which is done by having adequate antioxidants.  When your brain antioxidants run low is when you are really going to get into trouble with cortisol, in terms of it damaging your brain and/or helping to make you fat.  There are a lot of great brain antioxidants known to lower NF-kappaB.  These include the tocotrienol form of vitamin E, R-Alpha Lipoic Acid, grape seed extracts, N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC), Silymarin, and many others. 

The take home message for any person under long term stress is to maintain enough nutrient support to boost adrenals, boost BDNF production, and have adequate brain-related antioxidants to prevent stress from damaging your brain and health.


Referenced Studies:
  1. ^ How Cortiscol Helps You Adapt to Stress  Nature Neuroscience  Groc L., Choquet D., Chaouloff F.
  2. ^ Cortisol and Brain Inflammation  Biologic Psychiatry  Gregory E. Miller, Edith Chen, Jasmen Sze, Teresa Marin, Jesusa M.G. Arevalo, Richard Doll, Roy Ma, Steve W. Cole.

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