Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • September 2013
Written by  Cheryl Rentmeester, NP

Stressed out?


Have you ever wondered why your body acts the way it does when you are stressed? Today, each of us responds to stress on an almost nonstop basis. You have to deal with issues like family, money, employment, deadlines, bills, traffic and noise, and the constant need to rush here and there. You feel your heart racing, sweaty, and like you want to get away and run. Sound familiar? This all has to do with how your body protects itself. This is known as the fight-or-flight response and it all starts with cortisol.

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body that is secreted by the adrenal glands and is involved in the following functions (and more):

  • Proper glucose metabolism.
  • Regulation of blood pressure.
  • Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance.
  • Immune function.
  • Inflammatory response.

During times of stress, cortisol is secreted in higher levels due to the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:

  • A quick burst of energy for survival reasons.
  • Heightened memory functions.
  • A burst of increased immunity.
  • Lower sensitivity to pain.
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body.

Ironically named the master “stress” hormone, cortisol regulates the way your body uses various fuel sources and is essential for recouping energy following stress. Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose, fats and amino acids into the bloodstream to meet these demands.

Normal cortisol hormone levels tend to follow a 24-hour circadian rhythm. The lowest level is at night during sleep. It gradually increases when you need to wake up and get moving. The high cortisol levels present in early morning rapidly drop off and then continue to decline for the remainder of the day.

Under ideal conditions, your cortisol levels should be neither consistently high nor low, but fluctuate in a fairly rhythmic pattern. A cortisol rhythm that is keeping balance, adjusting to BOTH stress and relaxation, is most desirable and considered a healthy response.

Unfortunately, a “normal” day for most people is a far cry from what you would call ideal. In the real world, your day more likely than not includes a fair amount of distress. Factors such as emotional and physical stressors, lack of exercise or sleep, illness, injury, hunger, dieting, anxiety and depression, estrogen hormone therapy or pregnancy can raise your cortisol hormone levels — so can mild stimulants such as caffeine.

Those who have hectic lifestyles and who are under pressure — always feeling rushed, eating a diet of fast food and not getting enough sleep or exercise — are prime candidates for having an overexposure to cortisol.

Your body was designed to respond to stress very quickly by using up that surge of fats, sugars and protein for fuel. Stress hormones were meant to come onto the scene and immediately get depleted — NOT get stored and stick around!

Cortisol secretion varies greatly among individuals. People are biologically “wired” to react differently to stress. One person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. Studies have also shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress also tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates, than people who secrete less cortisol. If you’re more sensitive to stress, it’s especially important for you to learn stress management techniques and maintain a low-stress lifestyle.

If you live with a lot of pressure or are routinely being stressed in any way, it’s quite alarming to know how this little stress hormone is affecting your health in a BIG way! This is why it is so important to get your levels checked. 


Cheryl Rentmeester, FNP, APNP, is a health care provider at Wise Woman Wellness, an innovative wellness center in De Pere. Rentmeester is passionate about helping both men and women live life to the fullest. WWW is now empowering men to achieve optimal health and peak performance through the exciting new Men’s Vitality Program and is accepting both male and female patients. Call 920-339-5252 or visit for details.


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