What happens if we get too much for too long?
As cortisol shuts down the functions in the body that is not needed for immediate survival, and draws resources from tissue and organs not relevant for fight or flight, it is obvious, that too much cortisol over a longer period of time is not optimal for us. Beside from the exhaustion of being in alert-state, let’s look into the consequences:
- Cortisol makes the blood thick with many fatty acids and amino acids, the blood pressure high and the blood easily coagulating. This is the fast lane to blood cloths and other heart disease.
- Collagen is being broken down and not replaced. Your skin will fracture and the joints loosen.
- With your immune response set on ‘low’, you obviously get ill easier.
- Reduced bone formation leads to osteoporosis.
In the brain, too much cortisol overstimulates the amygdala. Amygdala have shown to grow after a period with elevated cortisol levels in the blood. The result is feeling more fear, more anger, more sadness and anxiety. Even panic attacks.
Long-term exposure to cortisol results in damage to cells in the hippocampus and this damage impairs learning, short-term memory and creativity: You lose your ability to learn new. You have little or no short-term memory. You will find it more and more difficult to remember what you used to know. And you stop being creative.
Eventually, it will lead to numb-ness in the brain: depression.
Science still discuss if these effects are reversible or not, but my qualified guess is, that the longer the exposure, the longer it takes to recover. Three weeks of holiday are not enough.