The Stress-Cortisol-Inflammation Connection

Numerous studies have been performed to better understand the effects of stress on the body. Since the beginning of time, stress exposure has initiated a fight-or-flight response that causes an increased heart rate and body temperature, elevated blood pressure, and a rise in the stress hormone referred to as cortisol.

This response results in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the parts of the body that need them most in hopes of allowing the body to successfully deal with the stress. Once the stressor is gone, blood pressure, heart rate, and other factors modified by the stress should return to normal.

Factors that increase cortisol levels include:

  • Caffeine

  • Inadequate sleep

  • Severe trauma and stress

  • Intense or prolonged physical activity

  • Stressful commuting

However, there are some factors that actually decrease cortisol levels:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Black tea

  • Yoga and other relaxation techniques

  • Massage therapy

  • Laughing

The Stress-Cortisol Connection

Cortisol secretion in response to stress is completely normal and natural. Cortisol is responsible for increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and assisting in carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. The problems with cortisol occur when it is secreted for prolonged periods of time.

Smoking is a huge instigator of inflammation and has been linked to numerous chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Themajor issue with smoking is that it sharply increases inflammatory biomarkers, including CRP, in the blood.

Day in and day out, humans are bombarded by “everyday” stressors related to jobs, relationships, finances, overloaded schedules, and major life changes. Unfortunately, your body cannot differentiate between “short-term” stressors and “chronic, everyday” stressors, so it continually secretes cortisol.

Over time, chronic stress can result in consistently elevated blood pressure levels that can lead to nicks and injuries within the blood vessels. These microscopic tears eventually trigger an inflammatory response in the body as it attempts to mend the tears. Ultimately, this inflammation can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

So although some stress is good and can motivate you to achieve your short- and long-term goals, too much stress will ultimately lead to numerous health problems. For example, studies have found that individuals who are angry and hostile have higher CRP levels than people who are more laid-back. These elevated CRP levels indicate that inflammation is loitering in the body.

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