The Stress-Cortisol-Insulin Connection

To help us handle stress, adrenaline affects a variety of different parts of our body function. For example, it functions as a hormone (a well known fact) as described in our last blog, and as a neurotransmitter in the brain (not so well known). Our body produces adrenaline in large quantity in possible two scenarios – under physical stress or mental/emotional stress. That is why stress can be real or perceived (not real). But in effect, both of them causes the same effect of adrenaline release in our body.

Besides adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones, there is yet another hormone secreted by the adrenal gland (albeit by its external cortex section) that is also designed for helping us to deal with stress. Its name is cortisol. Unlike adrenaline which is activated directly by the instant electrical communication through the neurons, cortisol is activated biochemically by the pituitary gland which in turn is activated biochemically by the hypothalamus gland. Our body have cortisol receptors in just about every cell. As a result, cortisol has a wide range of impact when we go under stress.

The mechanism responsible for triggering cortisol release when our body determines there is insufficient amount of glucose in our blood to sustain brain functions (glucose is our brain’s main source of energy). The brain under the duress of lack of glucose, will call on the body to produce sugar from stored protein in our muscles through a metabolic process called gluconeogenesis, a process mediated by cortisol. It’s been stipulated that cortisol is also involved in the glycogenolysis process, which converts glycogen stored in the liver into sugar.

Our brain uses more sugar than any other tissue in our body. When sugar level falls, our brain “falls to sleep”. We get shaky, fainty, and bitchy – pardon my French (just trying to get the sentiment across. Besides they rhyme). Medically this is called hypoglycemia. Clearly it is a stressful situation for our body. From survival point, our body is designed to do everything and anything to supply the brain with proper amount of fuel. Cortisol and adrenaline hormones are its agent to initiate the fastest action to tap into the reserves to accomplishing that goal.

The most likely thing we do when we reach a low glycemic level in our blood is to reach for the high-sugar high-calorie foods. When that becomes our every mid-afternoon habit, we have created a craving event that will stimulate the production of insulin to send the glucose from our blood stream into muscle and fat cells on a regular basis. If we do not immediately utilized that energy surge by means of exercise or a burn off event, we build up fatty tissues in the belly area as our new energy storage units. And gain weight!

The excess amount of insulin needed to handle the excess sugar can cause a periodic low sugar level in the blood as well. Which triggers our stress hormones to start it up again to convert more sugar from the protein and other sources. Rounds and rounds of this can go on throughout the day causing a health condition dubbed syndrome X or metabolic syndrome. The interplay between the adrenaline/cortisol and sugar/insulin is a key factor in diabetes, syndrome X, hypertension, unexplained weight gain, hyperglycemia, and a whole array of other modern day illnesses.

But now, we have more than one hormone acting in parallel of each other to bring about the stress-adrenaline/cortisol-sugar-insulin-adrenaline/cortisol cascade cycles. This can obviously not be good for us on a daily and on-going basis. Despite of its desirable anti-inflammatory effects, excessive amount of cortisol over a long time can cause calcification of coronary arteries, plaques in carotid arteries, thyroid dysfunction, weight gain, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, mood swings, increased thirst and frequent urination to name a few.

In summary, we learned that our body is well-equipped to handle stress through different channels as described here but it is designed to deal with it on a short and rare unexpected conditions. Not as the way modern day urban living dictates, a continuous cyclical set of mid-range stresses one after another 24X7. The long term stressful lifestyle can and will lead to strenuous adrenaline-insulin-hormone imbalances with very undesirable health consequences.

We will dig into the hormone connection to stress and sugar imbalances specifically in our next blog.

Don’t mean to end this blog on such a negative note, but I ran out of space. In the next few blogs, let’s take a look at what actions can we take to mitigate our body and mind to handling the inevitable stress (however big or small) that bombards us every day.



“Beyond Fight or Flight,” by Robert M. Sargis, MD, PhD

“Adrenaline Dominance – A Revolutional Approach to Wellness,” by Michael E. Platt, MD



Posted by Paul

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