Cortisol, a hormone that the adrenal cortex produces in response to stress, prepares the body to react to potentially dangerous situations. It increases the level of sugar in the bloodstream and the brain's use of glucose, while curbing non-essential bodily functions, such as those that support reproduction and growth. Cortisol also suppresses the immune system and decreases the release of digestive secretions.
Cortisol plays an important role in protecting the body from imminently threatening situations by reallocating the body's resources to functions related to fighting against or fleeing from a threat. When the stressful situation ends, the body stops releasing the hormone. In the modern world, most stressful events do not involve physical danger. Experiencing pressure to perform at work or school, or juggling responsibilities at home, may last for an extended period of time. In response, the body keeps producing cortisol and its levels remain high rather than returning to normal. This continual release of cortisol has been shown to have negative health effects, such as anxiety, digestive troubles, heart disease and weight gain.
Researchers are exploring various ways to reduce high cortisol levels and prevent the negative effects of its overproduction. Music therapy and massage therapy have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in some patients. In cases where high cortisol levels are brought on by mental stress, taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be helpful in restoring a healthy hormonal balance.