Cortisol: Is It the Number One Longevity Hormone?

We always hear about cortisol as the stress hormone. When we are under a lot of stress, our cortisol levels spike in the blood. Chronically high cortisol levels have been associated with several health concerns and disorders like depression, high blood pressure, and even heart disease.

Key takeaways:

More recent research indicates that cortisol is necessary for controlling the aging process, and a deficiency would result in premature aging. Here, we discuss how cortisol influences aging and why it's called the number one longevity hormone.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands with an important function in stress response. Steroid hormones are made from cholesterol and are more like fat in comparison to other hormones, which are often generated from protein. The sex hormones testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone are other examples of steroid hormones.

Cortisol is produced via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis), which is part of the body's main stress response system. Initially, the hypothalamus secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), which then triggers the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol hormones into the blood.

Cortisol, sometimes called the stress hormone or the fight-or-flight hormone, tells the body to be ready to act when it senses or thinks there is a threat. It's the cause of your muscles tensing up, blood vessels narrowing, and your heart rate increasing as you get ready to handle potential problems.

Why it's important for longevity

Balance is crucial when it comes to the stress hormone cortisol. Several studies have shown that too much stress may be a big reason why people age faster. However, research shows that low levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body lead to increased inflammatory processes that promote aging. The key now is cortisol regulation.

Having consistently high levels of cortisol in your blood can be bad for your health because it can make your immune system weak. But everything depends on balance.

In a paper published in the journal Aging Cell, researchers found that low cortisol levels and the protein glucocorticoid-induced leucine zipper (GILZ) may cause inflammatory reactions to occur inside the body.

As we age, our immune system—specifically the adaptive or specific immune system which protects us from pathogens we've been exposed to—gets weaker. The nonspecific immune system, on the other hand, protects against a wider range of pathogens and can become too active. This can cause inflammation and lead to conditions like arthritis, which are more common in older people.

The exact cause of these inflammatory reactions is still not completely clear. However, some show that it has something to do with the cortisol level. In normal aging, the elderly have decreased cortisol levels. As people get older, their macrophages—which are important immune cells—lose some of their immunocompetency. Increased inflammation may result from this decline in macrophage activity. Research has shown that old macrophages are not functioning normally because of the irregularity in protein GILZ.

Should you take cortisol-boosting drugs?

Hydrocortisone is among the most well-liked forms of cortisol-boosting medication. It is a synthetic version of the hormone cortisol that is administered to patients suffering from low cortisol levels. Oral intake is just one of the many ways it may be taken in; it can also be injected or given topically.

Benefits and risks of cortisol medication

There are a number of benefits and risks associated with cortisol-boosting medication. Let's first take a look at the benefits:

  • If you're suffering from adrenal fatigue that results in low cortisol levels, increasing your cortisol levels using hydrocortisone will result in increased energy levels throughout the day.
  • It is effective in treating various conditions, including asthma, allergic reactions, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, adrenal, and abnormalities of the blood or bone marrow.
  • Hydrocortisone can increase your cortisol levels and can also reduce inflammation or calm down an overactive immune system.

It's important to weigh up the risk factors too when deciding if cortisol medication is right for you. Synthetic cortisol risks include:

  • Drying of the skin;
  • Muscle wasting or reduced muscle mass;
  • Accumulation of fat in the upper body, particularly the face and belly;
  • Elevation of blood pressure;
  • Lowering of the body's natural capacity to produce cortisol.

How to measure cortisol levels?

The amount of cortisol in your body is determined via a cortisol test. A sample of blood, urine, saliva, or a combination of these is needed for the test. Whether you have too much or not enough of the hormone is determined by this test. You can get a cortisol test in a clinic or hospital.

The findings can help in diagnosing:

  • Primary adrenal insufficiency and hypercortisolism or Addison's disease;
  • Hypercortisolism or Cushing's syndrome;
  • A tumor that affects the production of cortisol.

Cortisol levels & biological age

Normal aging is linked to many changes in the endocrine system, including changes in how the adrenal gland looks and works. Changes in the shape of the adrenal gland that happen with age are linked to changes in hormone output, such as a slow, steady rise in glucocorticoid secretion and a drop in adrenal androgen levels.

People getting older have higher levels of cortisol in their blood, which is interesting because cortisol affects many systems, including cognition. Higher cortisol levels in older people are linked to higher levels of psychosocial stress, worse cognitive performance, and shrinkage of memory-related brain structures, like the hippocampus—a major part of the brain for learning and memory. Stress hormone levels that are too high may have a negative effect on the levels and ratios of peptides that are important for maintaining neuronal integrity and brain health.

Similarly, it is also notable that the serum levels of cortisol in many elderly are low, which promotes chronic inflammation. Whether chronically high levels or deficiency, cortisol is associated with biological aging.

Ways to balance cortisol levels:

Overall, having balanced cortisol levels is key to preventing age-related decline. Some people may have too high, but others may experience problematic low cortisol levels. As cortisol can heavily influence aging and longevity, it is important to properly regulate it to healthy levels.

How to lower cortisol levels

The key to maintaining healthy cortisol levels and feeling less stressed includes: having enough rest and exercising regularly. Spending time outdoors is also a great way to calm the mind and lower cortisol.

Mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises have also been shown to bring down high cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Some natural foods may help keep cortisol levels healthy, including ashwagandha, rhodiola, lemon balm, and chamomile.

But keep in mind that it's great to combine multiple practices. For example, in addition to adjusting your lifestyle, you can include effective supplements to reduce and control cortisol levels.

How to increase cortisol levels

The only way to raise cortisol levels is from synthetic sources like hydrocortisone, cortisone, and prednisone, which are used to treat conditions like asthma, rashes, and inflammatory bowel disease.

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Michael Evans
prefix 8 months ago
Interesting hypothesis for a novel mechanism by which low cortisol could accelerate ageing, however the large scale population studies find this not to be the case. Mouse models and small N are seldom good replacements for large scale molecular epidemiology studies where human health outcomes and associations are concerned.