What is the function of cortisol in stress, depression, and burnout?

What is the function of cortisol in stress, depression, and burnout?

20 March 2015
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Most people know cortisol as the stress hormone. It is namely the hormone which is produced by the body in stressful situations. This response is natural and has happened as long as mankind exists. In this article we discuss what the stress hormone cortisol is exactly, and what the function of this hormone is.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone which is produced by the body when we experience stress. it has the goal of speeding up our responsiveness. Humans namely have two instinctive responses, namely the fight-or-flight response. In the right response, the body gets us ready to fight the danger. Thanks to cortisol, our pain threshold is higher and our body gets ready for a fight. With the flight response, cortisol gets our body ready to flee. SOme people notice that they can walk/run faster than normal. This is because cortisol offers us the perfect opportunity to run from a dangerous situation.

What is the use of cortisol?

As mentioned before, cortisol enhances the fight-or-flight response. But what is the goal of this? In the past it was very useful because people often came across dangerous situations. An example would be someone coming across a bear. In modern society, cortisol has somewhat lost its function. We namely do not come across dangerous situations anymore, not daily at least and not even weekly. Still our body often produces cortisol. The dangerous situations have namely been replaced by stressful situations. Examples could include a test or a presentation which you need to give. In such situations, cortisol will become active even though there is no actual danger. It is rather a response to the stress which we experience in a situation.

Does cortisol have a positive effect?

In the past, the answer to this would have been “yes”. It helped us survive dangerous situations. In our modern society, however, it is not useful anymore, at least not at excess levels. It is still useful in dangerous situations, but the brain does not see a difference between acute and chronic situations. Your secretion of cortisol has little use in the latter type of situations. Your blood pressure increases, meaning you have more problems with this as well as even your heart after a long period of stress. Your muscles tense up which can cause muscle ache or even tension headaches.

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