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What does cortisol do and how does it work?

Cortisol is an amazing hormone. It has the effect of switching you into a different gear. It ups the ante and helps you to cope with the threat, the stress you feel. What does it do?

When cortisol enters your bloodstream, it immediately shuts down anything that can’t help you deal with thethreat. It focuses your brain and reduces your cellsresponsiveness to insulin, so that energy storage stops. This immediately prompts your cells to switch from storing energy to supplying energy. Your blood glucose levels then rise, allowing you instant access to energy. It also increases your heart rate, and your blood pressure rises too. You are ready for action.

And then.

After the threat has passed and your stress level falls, cortisol is switched off .at least that’s what should happen.

How cortisol affects us today

It’s easy to see how useful cortisol was in our evolutionary past. The threats we experienced were immediate and probably life-threatening. Today, cortisol is activated not by the threat posed by a sabre-toothed tiger, but by the stresses we experience in everyday life – and there are many. A bullying boss, financial worries, relationship problems, the pressure of work, bringing up small children, paying the mortgage, weight worries. It’s a long list.

The problem is that the stresses we experience today tend not to be the momentary threats we experienced in our evolutionary past. They can be constant and unrelenting. This means that our stress response can remain active for very long periods. Cortisol hangs around. Long-term exposure to too much cortisol is not good for you, and plays a big part in weight gain.

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