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Cortisol, night shifts

Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science Sheri Scott explores the role of the circadian rhythm and its impact on cortisol production.

Now we are in spring, with longer days and sunnier weather, it is noticeable how our moods become brighter, and we are less prone to sickness. The role of vitamin D on our immune system is one reason for better health in the summer, but how do the changing patterns of light and dark, the shorter days and longer nights really impact on our health? In addition to this, with the increased workload in pathology and changes in service need, the requirement for shift patterns has escalated – how does this affect our moods and wellbeing?

In this article, we explore the role of the circadian rhythm and its impact on cortisol production. We examine the biological role of cortisol on health and the influence of shift work. We look at the disruption of our normal circadian cycles and how this can affect our health through the disruption of normal cortisol production.

Cortisol – the super hormone

Cortisol (hydrocortisone) is a steroid hormone known as one of the glucocorticoids. This hormone is produced by the zona fasciculate cells of the adrenal cortex in response to stress when stimulated by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is produced by the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland.

The primary functions of cortisol are to: increase blood sugar levels by stimulating gluconeogenesis, enabling the preservation of glucose for brain function; suppress the immune system; and promote protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Cortisol plays other significant physiological roles, such as the stimulation of gastric-acid secretions, counteraction of insulin, bone formation reduction and acting as a diuretic. The levels of cortisol concentrations have also been found to increase during psychological stress and are often elevated as a result of acute illness, surgery and following trauma.

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Image credit | iStock

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