Dr. Perricone on Stress and Cortisol
It is interesting to note that there is one hormone that actually increases as we get older. This is the hormone known as cortisol. Many of us are already familiar with cortisol because a derivative, called cortisone, is used in topical and systemic medications and has been part of the pharmacological armamentarium for years. Cortisol is essential in our bodies to maintain homeostasis during acute forms of stress, such as fear, physical trauma and extreme physical exertion.
The problem exists when cortisol is present for long periods of time and in excess quantities. When we measure a young person's cortisol levels under stress, they rapidly go up, but within a few hours, they decline to normal. When we measure cortisol levels in older people, the cortisol levels rapidly rise during stress. However, levels do not return to normal for days.
In addition, cortisol levels continue increasing with age and a 65-year-old person has far higher levels of circulating cortisol than a 25-year-old circulates. Cortisol in large amounts for long periods of time is extremely toxic. Our brain cells, or neurons, are extremely sensitive to the effects of cortisol. Cortisol causes death to brain cells when it is circulating at a high level. Therefore, it is not surprising that we see brain shrinkage of senility with old age. Cortisol in excess amounts can also cause destruction of our immune system, a decrease in our muscle mass, shrinkage of our other vital organs and thinning of the skin with prominent blood vessels.
It is not surprising that we in the anti-aging field call cortisol "the death hormone" because it is truly associated with old age and disease.
Stress is also a proven precipitator of acne. Again, young people are able to bounce back from the effects of the stress hormone cortisol in a matter of hours. Adults, on the other hand, can have circulating levels of cortisol for days—which greatly exacerbates acne flare-ups.
Our cortisol levels are affected on a daily basis by our attitudes and approach to life. Consequently, learning to relieve and deal with stress in a positive manner is an essential part of our anti-aging lifestyle. We need to do everything we can to see that the cortisol levels don't continue to remain elevated and destroy our very lives. Cortisol is deadly and stress produces cortisol. So, therefore, we must control stress—and getting enough sleep is an important part of the process.