Cortisol is the one hormone that actually increases as we get older. We are all familiar with cortisol, because a derivative called cortisone is used in topical and systemic medications and has been part of the pharmacological arsenal for years. Cortisol is essential; it enables 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 it is needed during periods of stress, cortisol is produced by the body in the quantities necessary to combat stress. However, 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 within a few hours as the stress is relieved, they decline to normal. However, when we measure cortisol levels in older people, the levels rise rapidly during the stress but tend not to return to normal for days. Since cortisol levels continue to increase with age, a sixty-five year old has far higher levels of cortisol circulating throughout their system than does a twenty-five year old.
Large amounts of cortisol are toxic when they circulate in our system for prolonged periods of time. Our brain cells, or neurons, are extremely sensitive to the effects of cortisol. When cortisol is circulating at a high level, it causes the brain cells to die. That is why brain shrinkage is associated with senility in old age.
Excessive amounts of cortisol can destroy the immune system, shrink the brain and other vital organs, decrease muscle mass, and cause thinning of the skin which results in prominent blood vessels. In the anti-aging field, cortisol is known as the death hormone because it is associated with old age and disease. So, how can you keep your cortisol under control?
- Get good adequate sleep-six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.
- Minimize stress-whenever possible, avoid stress-inducing situations.
- Cut out coffee! Coffee contains a number of organic acids that affect blood sugar and cortisol levels. This is not due to the caffeine. For example, you can drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee at 8am and your cortisol levels will still be measurable at 10pm-the same as if you had drunk regular coffee.