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We all have cortisol. We all need cortisol, but what is it? When is it too much?

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, and is involved in some very important bodily functions. We need cortisol to regulate blood pressure, aid in immune function, and regulate proper glucose metabolism.

At certain times in our lives we experience increased, or heightened, levels of cortisol. Although stress isn't the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because higher levels are secreted in response to stress. This is commonly known as the 'fight or flight' response.

The Good

In small doses, cortisol has some very positive effects on the body; including quick bursts of energy necessary for survival, increased immunity, and lower sensitivity to pain. It also aids in maintenance of homeostasis in the body.

The Bad

Research has demonstrated that too much cortisol can make your brain more vulnerable to damage, such as premature aging and possibly strokes. Sustained exposure to cortisol increases the bad, and can even cause brain damage. That's when we have to look at the ugly effects of too much cortisol.

The Ugly

When an excess amount of cortisol is in your brain, it can have negative effects on your mind, specifically the hippocampus (memory, mood, space awareness) and prefrontal cortex (emotion, arousal, impulsivity, and attention), by damaging and killing cells.

If the stress is long term, such as with post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of cortisol on the hippocampus impair the creation of new memories and the access to those that already exist. For children who experience traumatic stress, they may suffer brain damage that results in a decrease in the size of the hippocampus.

While cortisol is important for a healthy response to stress, it is just as important that we have a way to balance an increased amount of the hormone. It is imperative that our lives include balance. We need to take time to help our bodies relax after stressful events. In addition to many methods we use for relaxation, massage and nurturing touch may be quick and easy ways to balance cortisol levels.

One optimal way to feel complete relaxation is through receiving nurturing touch and massage. Research has demonstrated that nurturing touch increases the release of oxytocin, a hormone that creates a feeling of nurturing and sensation of trust. This feel good hormone also aids in the reduction of cortisol.

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