Cortisol and Stress

What is Stress? Scientifically, stress is defined as a negative condition, any negative condition that can have an impact on one’s mental and physical well-being. As one of the most ambiguous body conditions humans or any other organism can develop, it is very hard to detect as well. We know that stress causes numerous diseases, such as depression or PTSD (which is just literally ‘Stress Disorder’). But since all diseases and hazardous body conditions are caused by the ‘abnormal functioning of any body part’, wouldn’t it be elementary for stress to have an indicator as well?

As for everything, science has the answer. We don’t exactly know what causes stress, for the sheer complexity of the psychological and physical aspects allow us to be as clueless and astounded as any other man on Earth. Somehow, because we are such ‘sophisticated’ and ‘highly developed’ organisms, namely the highest on the evolutionary chain, our body responds to psychological stress the same way it does with physical stress. From a doctor’s, or a scientist’s point of view, this makes things dreadfully confusing. So we don’t know exactly what the reason could be, but we can take a guess on what stress causes. Stressful conditions, such as traumatic experiences or work pressure, evoke an increase in a certain steroid hormone. Subdivided into the glucocorticoids, we know about it as ‘Cortisol’.

As mentioned above, cortisol is a steroid hormone, which means that it is synthesized from cholesterol. Secreted in the Adrenal Cortex, it is one of the most major stress hormones in the body. Its primary function is to redistribute glucose – the body’s way of saying ‘energy’ – to regions of the body that need it the most, such as the brain or major muscles, during a fight-or-flight response. It also suppresses the immune system in a time of need, becoming the cause of reduced immune response during highly stressful situations. But just because it might make us catch a cold easier doesn’t mean that it’s all bad. On the contrary, if cortisol didn’t exist to push back our immune system a little during the time of our prehistoric ancestors, they wouldn’t have been able to gain enough strength while trying to run from terrifying predators. Nothing in the human body exists without a cause! (Except maybe the appendix, but science is working on it)

Of course, cortisol isn’t the sole hormone that stress affects. Other hormones such as norepinephrine (a close relative of epinephrine, or, ‘Adrenaline’) also indicate the effects of stress. But as for cortisol, it is the most well-known hormone with such relevance. Also, unlike norepinephrine which takes up a variety of functions in the human body, therefore more prone to fluctuations of level, cortisol is utilized for a relatively small number of functions – most of them somehow related to stress response in one way or another.

So how do we detect stress from cortisol? Well, first we will need some bodily fluids and a way to analyze them. That’s the hard part. Theoretically, scientists have developed ways to detect cortisol levels from saliva, but we know real life doesn’t work like that. The problem with bodily samples is the fact that the concentration rate, despite it being a ‘homogenous’ mixture, may differ in certain areas of the body. In the case of hormones, it is more so because usually, not only are hormones secreted in particular small areas before being transported to the sites of need, they travel primarily through blood vessels, one of the most ineffective ways to travel. The one-way roads that have to travel all the way to the tips of our toes, well, not a surprise if the levels fluctuate a bit depending on where you stick the needle in, right?

Back to the topic of detecting cortisol from bodily fluids, once reliable samples are gained, the rest is pretty simple. Using one of the most effective analyzing techniques known to man, known as the antigen-antibody technique, the cortisol markers will attach themselves to the antibodies. And there you have your cortisol levels. What is left is for you to compare the patterns to your average cortisol fluctuations. Blood (or in this case, any kind of body fluid) cortisol levels vary according to the time, and whether you’ve just eaten or not. This property allows you to have a certain average variation of the hormone levels. If it fluctuates too little and the graph is ‘flat’, you have a problem. If it fluctuates too much and your graph looks like the 16th-century chapels that have the gothic style towers, you still have a problem. The key is to maintain a healthy and consistent level of cortisol.

Of course, cortisol levels aren’t really something that we can fix manually. To lower it, we need to get less stress, or at least less affected by it. As the famous author and psychologist Richard Carlson once said, “Stress is nothing but a sociably acceptable form of mental illness.” We don’t let ourselves get too worried over stress. Mainly because it is all around us, and is a constant in all of our lives. But just because we face it all the time doesn’t make it okay. Maybe, one could hope for a stress manager or a gauge that could help us know our stress levels based on the cortisol patterns. Who knows? Maybe sometime soon, a universal diagnosis or cure for stress could be developed. All for the greater good.


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