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Cortisol: The Death Hormone

"Cortisol—the one hormone that actually increases as we get older. You’re likely already familiar with this one, considering that a derivative called cortisone is used in topical and systemic medications and has been a part of the pharmacological arsenal for years. Cortisol is essential, enabling our internal systems to maintain stability and stay in balance during acute forms of stress, such as fear, physical trauma, and extreme physical exertion. When needed during periods of stress, the body produces cortisol in the quantities necessary to help combat this stress. But a problem arises when cortisol is present for long periods of time and in excess quantities. When we measure the cortisol levels of a young person under stress, they rise rapidly but decline back to normal as the stress is relieved. However, when we measure cortisol levels in older people under stress, they rise rapidly but tend to take much longer to return to normal—typically days. Since cortisol levels continue to increase with age, a 65-year-old has far higher levels of the hormone circulating throughout their system than a 25-year-old does. Large amounts of cortisol are toxic when they’re left circulating in our system for prolonged periods of time. Our brain cells (or neurons) are extremely sensitive to the effects of cortisol, so when cortisol circulates at a high level, it can cause brain cells to die. That’s why brain shrinkage is associated with senility in old age. Excessive cortisol levels can destroy the immune system, shrink the brain and other vital organs, decrease muscle mass, and cause thinning of the skin, which ultimately results in more prominent blood vessels. In the anti-aging field, cortisol is known as the “death hormone” because it’s associated with old age and disease. With all of that in mind, you may be wondering—what can you do to help keep your cortisol levels under control? Here are a few tips:
  • Get good, adequate sleep. Aim for six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
  • Minimize stress. Avoid stress-inducing situations whenever possible.
  • Cut out the coffee. We know, we know—that’s a painful thought for many of us, but coffee contains a number of organic acids that affect blood sugar and cortisol levels.