High levels of cortisol put a strain on your body's health. It is normal for cortisol levels to rise during times of acute stress, but it is abnormal for these levels to remain high. Prolonged elevated levels of this steroid hormone affect immune function, metabolic pathways for use of energy and chronic disease risk. Blood glucose is particularly affected by elevated cortisol levels.
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In stressful situations, cortisol's role is to provide glucose to the body through utilization of protein stores. This quick delivery of glucose prepares your body for the fight or flight mechanism. When the body is in a persistent stressful state, cortisol is constantly obtaining glucose. This constant flow of glucose leads to high blood sugar levels.
Another Effect of Cortisol
Cortisol obtains quick glucose for the body to use in times of stress. At the same time, cortisol also reduces the effects of insulin. Therefore, not only are blood glucose levels high, insulin is unable to perform its regular function of maintaining normal glucose levels, according to "Today's Dietitian." The pancreas continues to release insulin, but the cells are resistant to insulin. However, the pancreas continues to secrete insulin in response to high glucose levels, which puts extra stress on the pancreas.
Insulin Resistance, Cortisol and Obesity
Since high cortisol levels result in insulin resistance, blood sugars remain elevated. This effect may lead to even more serious health issues, such as excess weight and obesity. A study in the July 2004 "Hormone Research in Pediatrics" assessed cortisol levels in obese children with insulin resistance. Levels of cortisol were moderately elevated in obese, insulin resistant children. With weight loss, cortisol and insulin resistance decreased significantly. Researchers conclude there is a definite association between cortisol, insulin resistance and obesity.
Low Glycemic Load
During times of high glucose levels due to high cortisol levels, an appropriate diet can help to counteract or help reduce blood sugar levels. When eating carbohydrates, it is important to make sure they contain a low glycemic load. A low-glycemic load lessens the effect the carbohydrates have on blood sugar. Carbohydrates high in refined sugar and starches will usually have a high glycemic load, and whole grains tend to have a lower-glycemic load. Examples of foods with a low-glycemic load include raw apples, raw pears, lentils, kidney beans, rye bread and whole wheat spaghetti.