Cortisol levels normally peak early in the morning and decline during the day to reach their lowest level at midnight. The hormone is produced and secreted by the adrenal glands and regulated by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Each of these has to be working properly for the right amount of cortisol to be produced.
Ethnographer and visionary thinker Simon Sinek offers a straightforward overview of what cortisol does. “Cortisol is designed to keep us alive,” he says. “It’s the first stage of fight or flight, injecting glucose into our muscles to make us stiff and ready to go and increasing our heart rate. Cortisol makes us nervous and looking for signs of danger. When we start producing cortisol, people around us sense it and start doing the same.” (Watch video).
Today, cortisol is recognized as perhaps the most reliable indicator of abnormally high stress levels.
It began on a Canadian rooftop in 1936. Endocrinologist Han Selye discovered that whatever ordeals he put rats through, exposing them to extreme temperatures or putting them on treadmills for hours on end, the end was the same.
“Subjecting the animal to prolonged stress led to tissue changes and physiological changes with the release of certain hormones that would then cause disease and ultimately the death of the animal."
Selye, who wrote prolifically – 39 books on the subject of stress alone –was determined to make the concept of stress “an international sensation. He certainly succeeded. And so the idea of stress — and its toxic potential for danger — was born.
Although the experiments of Stanford University neuro-immunologist Firdaus Dhabhar indicate that acute stress can actually enhance the immune system, the effects are usually negative. According to a Huffington Post piece, “30% of U.S. adults say stress affects their physical health and 33% say it has an impact on their mental health”.
If there’s no danger, cortisol leaves our body and our heart rate goes back down. But in a high stress situation, the workplace for instance, a person might have cortisol constantly in their system. And this is where the problem lies.
Cortisol liberates energy in our bodies by shutting down non-essential systems. Our immune system is one of them. If we’re in a place where we don’t feel safe, cortisol drips into our body constantly, making us more at risk of heart disease and cancers.
Constant stress also means higher levels of glucose in our bodies, causing blood sugar levels to rise and putting us at greater risk of developing diabetes.
Because cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone” that makes us empathetic and generous, we also become more paranoid and self-interested. In a high-stress environment, for example, we only care about ourselves.
So, given that it’s common knowledge that stress is a potential killer, how can we prevent it building up to toxic levels?
Spit-and-measure tests are now widely accepted as one of the most reliable and least intrusive tests of cortisol levels. The World Health Organization recognizes it as highly accurate and it’s covered by some US insurance plans.
Researchers at the Department of Psychology at Germany’s Technische Universitat Dresden (TU Dresden) have been at the forefront of stress research for over 30 years. They use a wide range of techniques to investigate the effects of both acute and chronic stress on the body, including paper-based testing, brain imaging and biochemical assays.
As Professor Clemens Kirschbaum explains, “We need non-invasive testing methods to avoid skewing results, and so have developed a range of techniques based on saliva or hair extract analysis."
Measuring cortisol in saliva is one of the Department’s most commonly performed tests and can involved more than 10,000 samples. The assay plates used in testing have been supplied by German company IBL International since 2001.
Kits like the new IBL International Cortisol Saliva ELISA kit are simpler and more affordable than ever before. This makes it possible for them to measure workplace stress levels before they become a problem.
Recognizing stress early and changing the conditions that cause it can only be a good thing, and not just for individuals. If it’s possible to test stress levels unobtrusively and regularly with spit-and-measure testing, the potential benefits to health are enormous.
AUTHOR: JAMES O’BRIEN, TECAN