Cortisol is a vital element in our bodies as it converts proteins into usable energy – it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, and it’s also used by our bodies for balancing insulin effects to maintain normal sugar levels, regulating the bodies immune system, and regulating blood pressure.
Produced in the adrenal cortex, cortisol plays a big role is the body’s stress response by shutting down unnecessary functions like reproduction and the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. These functions of cortisol are supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the offending stressor.
Unfortunately, with PTSD, quite often the stressors remain, and so do the deranged levels of cortisol. Individuals with PTSD almost always have altered cortisol levels, yet the impairments have been shown to be too high in some individuals, and too low in others.
A prolonged exposure to these increased hormones can cause some unexpected, and very inconvenient problems.
You’ll scar more easily
Your body’s stress response draws water away from your outer layers of skin, possibly as a way to keep hydrated in an emergency situation. This results in a reduced ability for your skin to repair and regenerate itself. This is also a reason why you may find you have very dry skin.
Your ears may ring
FMRI scans undertaken for a study at Swedens Karolinska Insitute showed that the limbic part of your brain moves into overdrive when you experience ringing in your ears – this is the same element of your brain that handles stress regulation and has shown to be affected in PTSD sufferers.
Ordinarily, the ear sends a stream of nerve impulses to the brain which are interpreted as sound. The stressors from PTSD can trigger the ear to send an abnormal stream of impulses which the brain interprets as a ringing in the ears.
You might gain weight – particularly around your stomach
Cortisol has a direct influence of the storage of fats and weight gain in individuals who are going through stress. High cortisol levels are closely linked to excessive eating, a high craving for sugary and fatty foods and the relocation of fat to the stomach area (visceral fat). Infact, fat cells in the stomach have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere. One PTSD sufferer who began going to the gym commented, ‘I was signed off work with PTSD, and I’d go to the gym almost every day (not like me at all) – over a 4 month period I lost 1 pound – loosing weight was almost impossible’.
Your Digestion may change
PTSD can trigger the release of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) which can have a massive affect on your intestinal function – its thought that just like animals, if you remove any excess weight from your system, it will allow you to flee any dangerous situation quicker.
Cortisol also serves as an antidiuretic and causes the body to retain sodium which can cause high blood pressure, decreased blood flow to some of our organs, and sodium and water retention.
In addition to this, cortisol can be responsible for bloating, gas, indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux and other irritable bowel problems. Excess cortisol erodes the lining of your digestive tract via inflammation, and increased cortisol also inhibits your stomach from digesting foods properly.
You may get frequent aches and pains
Prolonged high cortisol levels fro PTSD can deplete your adrenal glands, which in turn, raises the level of prolactin and therefore your sensitivity to pain increases. The anxiety and hypervigilance that often comes with PTSD can also increase the tension you put on your muscles and joints in general. One PTSD suffer commented, ‘I’d wake up in the morning and my wrists and ankles would be agony – I’d been sleeping in such a tight, wound-up position what my joints just couldn’t keep up’
It can be really difficult to gain muscle (and any you do gain is lost very easily)
Cortisol restricts the uptake of amino acids into the muscle cells, making it almost impossible to gain muscle. Any muscle you do gain, or have already can be lost in a matter of days. This can result in overtraining, which ultimately creates more stress on your system, which creates more cortisol and adrenaline – interfering with the release of growth hormones and then reduced muscle growth & recovery! It’s a vicious cycle.
You may get icy hands and feet
During the fight/flight/freeze period (so all the time with PTSD) your blood flow is redirected away from your extremities and towards your larger organs in your torso necessary for your body to protect the heart and other organs essential to your survival. This redirection can result in poor blood flow to your hands and feet, and cause them to feel cold. One PTSD sufferer who noticed this too said, ‘At times, my toes would be white – they looked close to falling off – there was almost no blood in them at all.’
You may develop (or aggravate) skin issues
As the extra cortisol from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder surges through your bloodstream, it dulls your body’s defenses and potentially turns soaps and creams into irritants triggering skin issues like eczema flare-ups or other sensitivities and allergies.
You might find you yawn more
PTSD can often cause nervous sweating, and when the brain becomes too hot yawning helps cool it down. Additionally, the quickened breathing from the anxiety that often comes with PTSD can make your brain think you’re not getting enough air, causing you to take deep inhales of a yawn.
Allergies may flare up
Just over 60% of your immune system is located in your digestive system. If your digestive tract is full of inflammation from increased cortisol levels, your immune function will be severely compromised. An Ohio State University study found an increase in allergy flare ups based on this. The founder of PTSD UK, Jacqui Suttie developed a dairy allergy during the peak of her PTSD, ‘It was obviously something that I’d always had, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to show itself. During my worst times of PTSD I couldn’t have any dairy products without having an allergic reaction’.
SOURCES: Shape, Enkivillage, Breaking Muscle, The Relationship between Traumatic Stress, PTSD and Cortisol By Eileen Delaney, PhD, Naval Center for Combat & Operational Stress Control, Prevention, Daily Mail, Independent, Natratech, British Clinic,
IMAGE: Small by Phil Gradwell