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Adrenaline vs Cortisol: What's The Difference & Why it Matters

Adrenaline vs Cortisol: What's the Difference and Why it Matters

You’ve heard the phrase “adrenaline junkie” but nobody uses the term “cortisol junkie”. That’s because there is a significant difference between adrenaline and cortisol. One of these two will significantly reduce your quality of life over time, if it continues to control you.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol or hydrocortisone is a steroid hormone that is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. It is important for many functions in the body, including regulating blood pressure, blood sugar levels, memory formation, balancing the salt and water levels in your body, reducing inflammation, and regulating your sleep cycles.

Under normal circumstances, your body sporadically releases cortisol to facilitate these functions, which help to maintain your overall health. Cortisol release is also triggered by different types of stress and creates a series of reactions to help you deal with the stress.

These reactions include:

  • A release of excess glucose from your liver and a reduction of glucose uptake in your cells in order to provide you with more energy
  • An increase in the availability of resources to improve healing
  • The shutting down of non-essential functions like the digestive system.

It is normal to experience some stress because of financial difficulties, a stressful job, mental or severe physical health issues, accidents, family conflict, or even crime. And, of course, a global pandemic and the ensuing financial instability don’t help our stress levels. These stressors are categorized into three groups; acute stress, chronic stress, and post-traumatic stress.

  • Acute stress: This type of stress comes on suddenly and dissipates relatively quickly. Things like a car accident, getting spooked by a friend, or a natural disaster will trigger an acute stress response.
  • Chronic stress: This type of stress is constant and long-term due to work, financial, or relational difficulties. Chronic stress wrecks your body as it causes prolonged, elevated cortisol levels, forcing the adrenal glands to continuously secrete cortisol to help you deal with the stress. Because our bodies are not made to constantly secrete cortisol, this ultimately overworks and fatigues your adrenal glands, causing a negative domino effect on other hormones. Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t cut out for sustained cortisol release, leading to detrimental effects on our health and may lead to cortisol dysfunction.
  • Post-traumatic stress: This type of stress is often experienced by military vets, assault survivors, firefighters, or police officers. Post-traumatic stress may be triggered by events not related to the initial trauma event but may cause flashbacks, nightmares, sweating, or nausea.

While the saying goes, you can’t have too much of a good thing, it doesn’t apply to cortisol. When you are suffering from chronic stress, your body will continually release cortisol instead of brief “pumps” of cortisol throughout the day. Instead of acting as a protective measure, excessive cortisol destroys your health and can cause a range of negative effects. Data shows that some of these effects put you at risk for developing graves disease, diabetes mellitus, gonadal dysfunction, and even obesity.

Furthermore, normal levels of cortisol have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. But when you suffer from chronic stress and have chronically elevated cortisol, the cortisol dysfunction can block the anti-inflammatory effect and promote pro-inflammatory effects which cause pain and inflammation.

Now that you have the low-down on stress, how does cortisol differ from adrenaline? It’s easy to confuse the two hormones as they play in the same field but for very different reasons. 

What is Adrenaline?

Adrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in the adrenal glands that helps to gear you up for a threat and to increase your chances of survival. It does this by increasing blood flow to your muscles and decreasing blood flow to non-essential functions like digestive processes.

Unlike cortisol, it is not released sporadically throughout the day. Instead, your body releases adrenaline into your bloodstream in response to danger, extreme stress, or excitement.

When adrenaline levels are high, you may feel more alert, have more energy, and are less sensitive to pain.

Other responses include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Heightened senses
  • Increased breathing because of expanded air passageways
  • Slowed digestion.

All these reactions prepare you for what your body thinks is a perceived danger you’re about to experience. Jumping out of an airplane may be thrilling but your body still perceives it as a danger, regardless.

In large amounts, adrenaline can have a negative impact on your health. If left unchecked, out-of-whack adrenaline levels can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, restlessness, trouble sleeping, a weakened immune system, depression and anxiety, and headaches. These health conditions can lead to a plethora of other health issues, including heart disease, which is why it is important to balance your adrenaline levels.

Can you have healthy adrenaline levels if your cortisol levels are balanced? 

When you’re experiencing an extremely stressful or dangerous event, your body will release adrenaline in response. It will also release cortisol at a later stage to assist the adrenaline until the danger has passed. Cortisol’s function in this instance is twofold. First, it releases glucose to give you enough energy to deal with the stressor until it has passed. Second, it sends a signal to your brain to lower the level of the acute stress response. 

If your cortisol levels are too low during an adrenaline-inducing event, your brain will not receive the necessary signal to lower the stress response. This cortisol imbalance will put you at risk for a stress response that runs rampant. Balancing your cortisol levels is critical, as it will ensure that you have a healthy adrenaline response that returns to normal once the stress has passed.

Does stress affect adrenaline? 

Stress is the main trigger for the release of adrenaline. Although adrenaline is typically released during extreme events like bungee jumping, skydiving, or an attack, the brain can sometimes confuse a highly stressful situation where you are not in immediate danger, as dangerous, which prompts the release of adrenaline.

What are the Differences Between Cortisol and Adrenaline?

Cortisol vs adrenaline - they both play important roles in your body. The fundamental differences between cortisol and adrenaline are the stimuli that promote the release of these hormones, the effect on the body, and the role they play in your overall health and well-being.

When working properly, cortisol starts the day off higher, and then levels come down as the sun goes down, to prepare for sleep.

It is also released during stressful events and periods in your life to help you deal with what is happening in the moment.

Adrenaline, in contrast, is released during threatening, dangerous, or exciting moments and creates the right environment, by opening up blood flow,  for you to either fight or flee from danger. Think of adrenaline as your emergency hormone. It helps you to get out of sticky situations but isn’t necessary for daily health and functions.

Because adrenaline and cortisol both respond to forms of stress and can have overlapping effects, it is possible to confuse the experience of high cortisol with adrenaline. The key point to remember is that adrenaline is released as a last resort to deal with a dangerous situation. If you are not in danger or excited, then you’re likely experiencing high cortisol.

If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you may wonder if you’re at risk for high cortisol. Thankfully, cortisol levels should return to normal after moments of excitement or danger. Adrenaline junkies seem to release more dopamine and less cortisol in response to dangerous activities. Therefore, if you are an adrenaline junkie, you aren’t likely to be at risk of high cortisol. However, you may experience a “crash” after the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. This crash can cause you to feel fatigued, irritable, and depressed.

How are Adrenaline and Cortisol Related?

Cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones that are produced and released in response to stress. Each of these hormones plays a vital role in protecting you from danger and, sometimes, helps you deal with acute stress. In a study conducted by Dr. Maduka and colleagues, they found that examination stress in students significantly increased both the cortisol and serum adrenaline levels before the examination period. This shows that under severe stress, adrenaline and cortisol are both released and work together to manage the stressor. In acute stress events, adrenaline is released first, which is followed by a delayed but sustained release of cortisol until the stress has passed. 

Both these hormones are released from the adrenal glands, which may explain where the term “adrenal fatigue” came from. According to some practitioners, adrenal fatigue is caused by prolonged stress, which affects the adrenal glands’ ability to produce cortisol. However, it is a myth. A systematic review by Dr. Cadegiani and colleagues found that there was no proof that adrenal fatigue exists. Therefore, if you experience any symptoms that could show low cortisol levels, it is best to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

While you may enjoy the thrill that comes from an adrenaline rush, even going out of your way to get your “fix”, there’s a good chance you don’t need to manage your adrenaline levels. But cortisol levels are another matter. 

As mentioned, living with elevated cortisol levels can have highly destructive effects on your health. You don’t want to be a cortisol junkie. So, Rebalance has a Stress Management System that can help you balance your hormones, reduce your stress, and combat some effects of being an unintended cortisol junkie.