Cortisol: The Stress Hormone and How it Affects Your Health 

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In this article, we answer some of your most frequently asked questions about cortisol.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces in response to stress. It has many important roles, including balancing blood sugar levels.

What Does Cortisol Do?

Cortisol helps your body respond to physical and mental stress, such as pain, cold temperatures, illness, injury, or emotional shock by controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, helping you reduce inflammation, and assisting with memory formulation.

What Happens When I Am Stressed?

Cortisol is one of three hormones that are released when the body experiences stress (the other two being adrenaline and nor-epinephrine). Cortisol is especially helpful in regulating glucose levels and blood pressure because of the many functions it performs in the body.

Cortisol’s main function is to:

  • Signal the liver to convert sugar (glucose) into glycogen, which stores carbohydrates for energy
  • Increase blood glucose by prompting insulin release from the pancreas
  • Lower amino acid levels in the bloodstream, which prevents your body from burning muscle tissue. (This is why you might experience muscle loss when you are feeling extremely stressed)
  • Provide fuel for physical or mental stress via increased protein breakdown and fat mobilization (fat burning). This serves to give you an immediate energy source during times of stress
  • Dampen down the immune response of the brain, which decreases anxiety and cortisol levels
  • Stimulate your heart to pump blood more efficiently by suppressing hormones that inhibit blood flow

How Does Cortisol Affect Blood Sugar?

When your blood sugar levels decline during times of stress (even “good” stress like exercise), cortisol is released to signal your liver and muscles to release stored glucose from fat and muscle cells. This will help prevent hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Cortisol also works with the hormone insulin by allowing the body to take up the excess glucose in your bloodstream into cells, keeping blood sugar levels normal.

If your cortisol levels stay high over a period of time, such as in Cushing’s Syndrome, you are likely to have an increased risk for developing diabetes and obesity.

How is Cortisol Controlled?

Cortisol is part of your body’s circadian rhythm or natural body clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake up. Cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and then decline throughout the day. This pattern also occurs while you’re sleeping. Cortisol levels do not always follow this pattern, however, which can lead to an overproduction of cortisol that leads to high blood sugar.

How is Cortisol Regulated in Relation to Stress?

In stressful situations, your nervous system releases hormones that control how you think and feel so you can adapt and react quickly. One of these hormones is cortisol.

For example, your brain will “think” you are under stress when there is a high-pitched noise or a loud noise. You may then experience emotional reactions like anger and anxiety that will result in the release of cortisol into your bloodstream.

Symptoms of Low Cortisol

If your cortisol levels drop too low, you may feel depressed and sad. You may also feel sluggish, tired, and detached from your surroundings. You might think that you are having a mental condition. In reality, those feelings may be an indication that you have extremely low cortisol levels.

Symptoms of High cortisol

If your cortisol levels are too high, you may have trouble gaining weight. You may also be uncomfortable and restless. Physical symptoms of excessive cortisol include:

  • Excessive thirst – dehydration
  • Dark patches on the skin around the neck, under the arms, or in the groin area – high blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations – increased heart rate
  • Irritability – general anxiety disorder
  • High blood sugar levels

How Much Cortisol Should You Have?

There are guidelines for a normal level of cortisol production for adults but it is not known what an ideal amount of cortisol is for a child and it is different from person to person. What’s normal also varies based on the time of the day. A normal range in the morning (around 8 a.m.) is considered to be between 6 and 23 micrograms of cortisol per deciliter of blood (mcg/dL).

What Happens if Cortisol Levels are High?

High cortisol levels can lead to many conditions. Some of them are:

  • Autoimmune disease: Because cortisol stimulates the immune system, conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus may be caused by the constant overproduction of cortisol
  • Diabetes – Cortisol imbalances may lead to increased blood glucose levels. Insulin resistance and insulin insufficiency may also be caused by chronic high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol
  • Hypertension – high cortisol levels are associated with a dramatic increase in blood pressure
  • Obesity – higher cortisol levels have been linked to overeating and obesity. Excess cortisol can be produced by stress, smoking, and eating too many processed foods. High cortisol levels also can lead to increased muscle mass. This has been linked to an increase in caloric intake, an unhealthy diet, and weight gain over time

How Can You Determine Your Cortisol Level?

The main ways to test cortisol levels are:

  1. Saliva test: You can do it yourself by getting a cortisol test strip
  2. A urine or blood test may also be used by your doctor to determine your cortisol levels. A blood test is more accurate than a saliva test strip, but it is also more invasive and not as convenient for some people. Your doctor will have to draw blood, which will then be sent to a lab for analysis. The lab results take anywhere between several days and several weeks

How Do You Reduce Your Cortisol Level?

If your cortisol levels are high, here are some suggestions for how you can reduce them:

  1. Exercise: exercise is a great way to fight stress and increase your stamina. It can burn off some of the excess stress hormones that lead to elevated cortisol
  2. Eat healthier: Eating a healthier diet is another important way to fight high levels of cortisol. Though it may seem difficult, you can actually eat healthier by resetting your diet if you have been eating the wrong types of foods or too many unhealthy foods for several months
  3. Reduce stress: If you are chronically stressed out, that will cause your body to produce excessive amounts of stress hormones such as cortisol. Learning how to reduce stress in your life is an effective way to combat high levels of cortisol
  4. Reduce caffeine consumption: Some studies have shown that high levels of caffeine consumption can affect cortisol levels (2)
  5. Avoid sugar: Sugar is a substance that can cause the body to produce high amounts of stress hormones such as cortisol. To get your cortisol levels down, try to avoid any form of sugar
  6. Avoid alcohol: Drinking alcohol can raise your stress levels, which can lead to elevated cortisol levels. 
  7. Rest: When you are stressed, your body naturally produces more cortisol to keep you calm. The only way to stop this release of cortisol is to rest. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

Summary & Conclusion

Cortisol is a hormone that plays an important role in balancing blood sugar levels. By managing stress and anxiety, you can help your body respond appropriately to the physical and/or mental stressors you experience on a day-to-day basis.


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