Cortisol is a hormone which regulates a wide spectrum of body processes, including our metabolism and immune response. It also has an important part in our body’s stress response. Cortisol effects are expressed in blood sugar control and metabolism regulation, anti-inflammatory function, memory creation, salt and water control, blood pressure effects, and help with fetus development. In many species, it is also responsible for triggering processes connected to birth.
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. We can describe it as an internal alarm system. It operates with certain parts of our brain to control our mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol is produced by our adrenal gland located on top of the kidneys.
Cortisol has an important role in many different things involving our body. Some examples are listed below:
- It controls our body’s consumption of carbo hydrates, fats, and protein.
- It lowers inflammation levels.
- It regulates our blood pressure.
- It increases our blood sugar (glucose).
- It controls our sleep-wake cycle.
- It increases our energy level to mitigate stress and balances our body.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Cortisol excretion is mainly controlled by three inter-communicating regions of our body. These are hypothalamus in the brain, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland.
Our hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both located in the brain) can detect cortisol blood levels. If it is too low, the brain adjusts the quantity of hormones produced. Adrenal gland detects the high levels of this hormone, which consequently stimulates cortisol production in our blood stream. When cortisol level in the blood increases, blockade of hormone release, which excretes corticotropin from hypothalamus and adrenocorticotropic hormone from pituitary gland begins. Consequently, the level of adrenocorticotropic hormones starts to decrease, which leads to cortisol decrease as well. This is called a negative backward loop.
Cortisol receptors are located in most of our body’s cells. They receive and use the hormones in different ways. Due to this it can have various effects, depending on which cells it affects. Furthermore, our needs are changing every day. For example, when our body is in high alert mode, cortisol can alter or even stop our body functions that get in the way. This can include our digestive or reproductive system, immune system, or even our growth process. Sometimes our cortisol level can go above or below the optimal level.
Cortisol levels vary during the day; however, it is usually higher in the morning when we wake up and decreases throughout the day. This is the daily rhythm of cortisol. With people who work night shifts the rhythm is turned upside down. This means that cortisol release time is clearly connected to everyday activity pattern.
TOO MUCH STRESS
In case of stress, larger amount of cortisol is released, which helps the body adjust the response. When a certain pressure or danger passes, cortisol levels in the body should return to normal. Our heart, blood pressure, and other body systems normalize as well. But what happens in case we are chronically stressed, and internal alarm stays active all the time?
This can throw our most important body functions completely out of balance. Furthermore, it can lead to some serious medical conditions, that among others include:
CORTISOL LEVEL TOO HIGH
Too high cortisol levels in our body over longer periods, can lead to condition called the Cushing’s syndrome. This condition can be caused by many factors such as tumor, which produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (and consequently increases cortisol release) or consumption of certain drugs. The symptoms include:
- Fast weight gaining particularly on the face, chest, and abdominal area, contrary to lean hands and legs.
- Washed and round face.
- High blood pressure.
- Skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks).
- Muscle weakness.
- Mood changes, reflected as anxiety, depression, and irritability.
- Increased thirst and frequent urination.
High levels of cortisol over longer periods can also lead to reduced sex drive and women can experience unregular periods that can also disappear.
Moreover, various mental conditions such as anxiety and depression have been linked to increased levels of cortisol or impaired cortisol regulation. The main problem is that experts still do not completely understand the connection.
CORTISOL LEVEL TOO LOW
Too low levels of cortisol can be a consequence of problems in pituitary gland and adrenal gland function. If the body does not produce enough of this hormone it leads to a condition called Addison’s disease. Usually, the symptoms occur over time and include:
- Skin changes such as scar and skin folds darkening.
- Fatigue most of the time.
- Muscle weakness, that increases over time.
- Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
- Loss of appetite and weight.
- Low blood pressure.
Without correct therapy this condition can endanger our lives. Urgent endocrinologist evaluation is required if Cushing’s syndrome or Addison’s disease is suspected with diagnosis.
HOW DOES CANNABIS ENTER THE PROCESS?
Our body’s hormone levels naturally change depending on if it is day or night, and in which phase of our lives we are at (adolescence, pregnancy, menopause etc.). Hormones can become unbalanced in any part of our lives. These imbalances can also be a part of the driving force towards chronical disease. Furthermore, the effect of toxic environment is another great challenge we face today – plastics, industrial chemicals, and pesticides strongly affect our endocrine system.
Besides reduced exposure to these toxins, there are also ways to support our hormone health with food, herbs, and exercise. This is where cannabis and phytocannabinoids get involved.
CBD EFFECTS ON HORMONES
There are three main ways in which CBD alters the hormone process in our body.
Cannabinoid receptors are located on the main glands in our body. When endocannabinoid activate these receptors, it can alter the hormone release and their effect on the target organs. As CBD can also affect cannabinoid receptors (indirectly) it has the ability to alter synthesis and hormone release. Most changes in hormone synthesis and their release starts in hypothalamus, when CB1 receptor is activated. This triggers a chain of hormone messages, that are transported to other glands that consequently release their hormones as a response.
Cannabinoids such as CBD can affect the “quantity” of messages received by the target organ from the hormone. Cannabinoids can increase or decrease the sensitivity of the cell receptor. This means they can increase or reduce the message quantity (message strength, with other words).
Hormones have to clean up and decompose after their work is done to preserve the balance in the body. Cannabinoids such as CBD can affect the enzyme rate of functioning, when decomposing hormones.
CORTISOL AND CANNABINOIDS
Short term cortisol increase in our body is useful, as it allows us to be aware of potential dangers in our environment, that could threaten our survival. Unfortunately, our brain does not differentiate from the mentioned dangers and obligations such as paying bills, work related activities, or relationship activities. It treats them as danger. Consequently, it can lead to chronical cortisol release and unresolved stress.
CBD has an exceptional function of mitigating stress. It works as a braking system for our stress response by affecting it (indirectly) via cannabinoid receptors in hypothalamus. CBD signalizes the adrenal gland to ease on cortisol production and release. Studies (1, 2, 3) have shown, that CBD can modulate cortisol output and is one of the main reasons it offers calming effects to many people.
What About THC?
Study of the effects of cannabinoids on body’s cortisol levels researched the effect of Delta-9-THC on cortisol level in our body. This research was conducted on chronical cannabis users and healthy individuals who are not chronical users. They concluded that baseline cortisol levels are very similar in both groups. THC dosing increased cortisol levels from the baseline in proportion with the dosage. They did however observe a group effect in chronical users’ group. Compared to the control group they had a numb cortisol increase. Later analysis showed that the group effect resulted at the highest THC dosage.
The research concludes that Delta-9-THC increased cortisol levels in both groups. Placebo THC dosing did not have any effects on the daily cortisol rhythm. On contrary, with active THC dosage, the normal cortisol drop was decreased. This resulted in either similar or higher cortisol level. (Without THC it would be lower).
LET’S BE CAUTIOUS
Cortisol is an important part of our body. As we could see, the system of cortisol balancing is very sensitive and complex. Imbalanced functioning of the system and cortisol levels can lead to serious health issues. From unbearable stress levels to various chronical conditions. Similar to other body systems, cannabinoids can help with regulation in various ways. Mostly via synthesis, response, and decomposition. However, more research must be conducted to confirm the long-term effects and exact dosing plan.