Stress 2/3: The Cortisol Connection

Connecting Immunity & Stress through Cortisol

A couple of years ago, I went on a 1 week vacation after working straight for 7 months. I was so excited to finally enjoy some real relaxation and BOOM, I got sick on the second day of my vacation. As frustrating as it was it did have me wondering though, why would relaxation make me sick? Shouldn’t I feel better if anything? So, I decided to get to the bottom of this.


In part 1 of this blog series, we looked at the common effects that stress has on our physical and mental health, and how it applies to us personally, professionally in the workplace, and how it impacts us from a corporate, community and big-picture perspective too. In this blog post, I’d like to dive deeper into the connection between cortisol (our body’s main stress hormone) and our immune system. Let’s get technical!


What happens physiologically when we are stressed?

When we are under stress, one of the major physiological changes occurring in our body is than a hormone called cortisol is produced from the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys). If you haven’t already heard, our body is incredibly smart and everything it makes is made for a good reason, despite the fact that cortisol is often labelled as  "bad" hormone.  

The main roles of cortisol are as follows:

  • Regulate how body uses carbs (glucose), fats and protein.
  • Suppresses inflammation (anti-inflammatory)
  • Makes sugar ready to be burned as fuel
  • Acts as a wake-up call so you can get up in the morning

Once upon a time, stress meant that we were being chased by a tiger which put us under the true “fight or flight” scenario. Cortisol was a key hormone that enabled us get out of those situations. In today’s world, our source of stress has evolved from an acute/urgent state to a chronic and constant one.


What happens to our immune system when we are under chronic stress?

Our immune system initiates inflammation to fight against injuries and infections/pathogen invasions. Cortisol plays a key role (anti-inflammatory) in balancing the inflammatory reactions from the immune system so that it doesn’t go nuts with every little pathogen or foreign substance that comes into our system.  Unfortunately, since our bodies are built to output an acute, short-lasting burst from our adrenals, but we're trying to use them more chronically, we commonly run into problem of dysfunction or dysregulation, where our adrenals are releasing cortisol inappropriately:

Too much cortisol production

When there is too much cortisol being produced, the immune system responses can become heavily suppressed. This means that the body is not fighting against the pathogens or defending you to the degree that it should. This is why often times, people who are under chronic stress rarely get sick while working but, will all of a sudden get sick as soon as they go on vacation or when their stress level significantly decreases. Under this scenario when relaxation kicks in, the cortisol level drops and the immune system is finally getting the opportunity to kick some butt.  Cortisol suppresses the differentiation and migration of white blood cells: They can't get to where they need to go to fight off invading bacteria or viruses quickly, and when they get there, they are ill-equipped to handle the problem.  The long-term impact of this can be chronic infections - we have infections we cannot adequate fight off with our adaptive immune system.

Insufficient cortisol production

Another outcome that is common for those under chronic stress, is not having enough cortisol produced due to fatigue of the adrenal glands, desensitized cortisol receptors, nutrient deficiencies, or a combination of all of these factors.  This imbalance may lead to other common problems that we may not think of as being related to stress:

  • seasonal allergies
  • food allergies
  • asthma
  • arthritis

Cortisol isn’t the bad guy here. It’s just doing its job. Like everything else in life, having a balance is key. If you are under chronic stress and want to improve your health, then focusing on stress level management will help you gain control over your wellbeing.

On Friday, February 2nd at 12p PT, Dr. Jason Marr ND and I will be LIVE on Facebook to continue our discussion about stress, how it impacts our personal and professional lives, and how it's costing us, and the world, opportunities for growth and personal wealth.  

Later, in Part 3 of this blog series, we'll show you how you can keep your stress level under control through integrative and holistic means including diet, food, lifestyle, evidence-informed nutraceutical supplements and herbal medicines.  In the meantime, try your best to get enough sleep, drink lots of water and engage in relaxation activities such as meditation or yoga!

Want to engage with us LIVE?  We're going LIVE on Facebook this Friday, February 2 at 12p PT.

Catherine is a Holistic Nutritionist whose passion lies in educating and empowering corporate professionals to achieve optimal well-being. She designs and coaches her clients through individualized action plans which incorporate elements of diet, lifestyle and supplementation. Since life is a marathon not a sprint, Catherine’s mission is to show working adults how career and life goals can be achieved without sacrificing physical and mental health.