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The Cortisol-Cancer Connection

Stress has become an integral part of modern life, often dismissed as just part of life itself. Yet recent research indicates otherwise; recent work published in Harvard Health’s SSM–Population Health journal (Harvard Health) revealed an alarming correlation between prolonged stress exposure and an increase in cancer mortality rates – further underscoring its importance and illuminating how mental wellbeing and physical well-being intertwine.

Cortisol: A Double-Edged Sword

Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, plays an essential part of our bodies’ reaction to stress. Secreted from our adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight response mechanism, cortisol plays an integral part of our natural ability to respond quickly to immediate threats. Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels peak during stressful events before returning back down afterward; helping regulate various body functions. However, chronic stress exposure has recently come under scrutiny, particularly concerning its possible impact on cancer risk.

Cortisol and Cancer: The Cellular Connection

The body’s cortisol levels play a complex role in cancer risk through physiological reactions at a cellular level. Cortisol serves as a stress regulator, impacting many bodily processes but its persistent elevation may disrupt vital equilibrium required for healthy cell operations and, ultimately, increase cancer risks.

  • One way that cortisol may influence cancer risk is its impact on immunity. Cortisol has long been known to suppress immune function when its levels remain elevated for an extended period, decreasing efficiency of natural surveillance systems that detect and destroy cancer cells within our bodies. A compromised immune response not only has difficulty combatting existing cancer cells but may struggle with preventing future cancer cells from forming as well.
  • Chronic inflammation is an essential response to injury and infection; however, prolonged inflammation has been linked to various diseases – such as cancer. Persistent inflammation creates an environment conducive to cancer by altering DNA sequences, supporting abnormal cell growth, survival and angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels which supply nourishment directly to tumors.
  • Cortisol exposure may also have an impact on cellular aging and health, particularly with regard to telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of each DNA strand that shorten with every cell division and are an indicator of ageing; when combined with excessive cortisol exposure, this shortening accelerates and leads to faster overall cellular aging as well as an increase in genetic mutations which lead to cancer.
  • Cortisol plays an integral part in multiple hormonal pathways, including those related to insulin and sex hormones, impacting their balances and possibly contributing to certain forms of cancer development. Elevated cortisol levels may increase insulin resistance – a condition linked to an increased risk of breast and colorectal cancers among others.

Cortisol and cancer become even more intriguing when considering how stress affects lifestyle choices. If you’re one of the millions of people who live under chronic stress, studies show that you are susceptible to adopting coping mechanisms that may increase cancer risk — including smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and poor dietary choices.

Understanding this link emphasizes the significance of managing stress both psychologically and for overall health reasons – something many cancer prevention programs cannot achieve without adequate stress management strategies in place.

Study on Prolonged Stress and Cancer Mortality

The groundbreaking new research paper previously mentioned (Harvard Health) sheds new light on how long-term stress can increase cancer mortality risk, providing vital insight into how psychological stress impacts physical health outcomes, particularly within oncology.

Investigators involved in this research study meticulously evaluated health data collected from over 41,000 participants who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). This comprehensive dataset included variables like BMI, blood pressure, total cholesterol levels, glucose and C-reactive protein levels — an indicator of inflammation within the body. At the core of this study is allostatic load, or cumulative stress and life events on individuals. Allostatic load can be measured using physiological markers that measure how stress impacts our bodies.

Researchers’ analysis revealed a startling correlation: participants with high allostatic loads had an almost four times increased risk of dying from cancer than those with lower loads, suggesting prolonged stress has an enormously detrimental impact on mortality from cancer, likely via physiological changes caused by chronic stress exposure which alter cancer progression and our body’s ability to combat it.

This study’s methodology, using a large, diverse population sample and an exhaustive set of health markers, adds credibility to its findings. However, it should be noted that it establishes more of a correlation rather than direct cause-and-effect relationships; researchers suggest that increased allostatic load (indicating prolonged stress exposure) may increase body conditions that are conducive to cancer development and progression.

This research contributes to an expanding body of evidence on the influence of stress and cortisol on cancer risk, underlining the necessity of further studies into how prolonged stress contributes to cancer development, as well as potential strategies for stress management as part of cancer prevention and treatment strategies.

What Can You Do to Mitigate Your Risks?

Take some time to assess your own stress levels and their potential effects on your health. Chronic stress is more than an emotional burden; it could also have physical consequences, including increased cancer risks. If persistent stress is negatively impacting you, take steps to address it — seek medical advice as necessary, research stress reduction techniques or make mental wellbeing your top priority; making these investments won’t just help improve mental wellbeing but they’re an investment into long-term physical wellbeing!

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Resources:

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Larsson SC, Lee WH, Kar S, Burgess S, Allara E. Assessing the role of cortisol in cancer: a wide-ranged Mendelian randomisation study. Br J Cancer. 2021 Sep;125(7):1025-1029. doi: 10.1038/s41416-021-01505-8. Epub 2021 Jul 27. PMID: 34316022; PMCID: PMC8476513.

Sharpley CF, Christie DRH, Bitsika V, Agnew LL, Andronicos NM, McMillan ME, Richards TM. Neurobiological and psychological evidence of chronic stress in prostate cancer patients. Eur J Cancer Care (Engl). 2017 Nov;26(6). doi: 10.1111/ecc.12671. Epub 2017 Mar 2. PMID: 28252237.

Manenschijn L, Quinkler M, van Rossum EF. Hair cortisol measurement in mitotane-treated adrenocortical cancer patients. Horm Metab Res. 2014 Apr;46(4):299-304. doi: 10.1055/s-0034-1370961. Epub 2014 Mar 13. PMID: 24627099.

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