The Ultimate Guide to Cortisol

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

It can add inches to your waistline, but that's not even the worst of what this hormone can do, if left to its own devices. Manage stress and manage your cortisol too. Here are some tips.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps control our blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It also regulates the body’s metabolism, and immune system, to maintain overall health and wellness. 

Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands, two small glands located just above the kidneys, and is one of the main stress hormones. 

Stress occurs during periods of mental, psychological, and physical tension, and is a natural reaction of the body. It is encountered by everyone in the world, and can often have a beneficial effect. Other, more acute, or chronic forms of stress can be harmful, leading to several adverse health conditions. 

However, it is not just during periods of stress that the body produces cortisol. It is ever-present and levels vary throughout the day, usually at its highest in the morning, falling gradually during the day to its lowest level close to midnight. Other factors can affect cortisol levels such as diet and physical activity. (1) 

Stress And Cortisol – How Does It Work?

If we find ourselves in stressful circumstances, our body responds by adjusting to protect us. This is known as a flight-or-fight response. When this happens our body releases stress hormones, in particular, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

The hypothalamus – a small area of the brain – activates an alarm mechanism in the body during times of stress or anxiety by transmitting a mixture of nerve and hormonal signals. This prompts the adrenal glands to release a rush of hormones such as cortisol, the primary stress hormone, to areas of the body. 

Glucose levels are raised in the bloodstream as cortisol is released, increasing the use of glucose by the brain. It also increases the supply of substances that can repair damaged tissues.

In a fight-or-flight scenario, cortisol often curbs functions that may be non-essential. It alters the responses of the immune system and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system, and processes of development. This complex natural alarm system often interacts with the regions of the brain that regulate mood, motivation, and fear. (2)  

After stress or tensions subside, cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels should return to normal. 

What If Cortisol Levels Are Too High?

If you remain under too much stress, or your body produces too much cortisol, it can lead to many health problems, including:

  • Anxiety and depression: Chronic, or long-term stress contributes to elevated hormones such as cortisol and decreased levels of serotonin and other brain neurotransmitters, including dopamine. This can lead to depression. (3)  
  • Migraines and headaches: Stress is believed to be a major trigger of headaches. Some studies have shown that relaxation after heightened bouts of stress actually triggered migraines on the subsequent day. The hormone cortisol, which rises during times of stress and also reduces pain, may contribute to the triggering of headaches during periods of relaxation. (4)  
  • Lack of sleep can increase levels of cortisol. Long periods of sleep deprivation can produce moderate to high amounts of cortisol and may lead to various health complications such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. (5)  
  • Weight gain: Cortisol can increase appetite causing the body to store fat, which may lead to weight gain or obesity. (6)  
  • Heart problems: Studies have suggested that high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease. This stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries. (7)  
  • Digestive problems: During stressful periods the body suppresses the digestive system to concentrate on more vital organs. As such, chronic stress and high levels of cortisol may prevent, or inhibit the ability to absorb or digest food correctly. (8)
  • Memory problems: Clinical research showed that elevated cortisol was linked with weaker overall cognitive functioning, as well as poorer episodic memory which may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. (9)  

Are There Problems Associated With Not Enough Cortisol?

Low levels of cortisol can cause weakness, fatigue, and low blood pressure. 

You could experience more symptoms if you have untreated Addison’s disease or weakened adrenal glands due to extreme stress, such as severe trauma or infection. Sudden dizziness, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness are among these symptoms. This is referred to as an Addisonian crisis.

An Addisonian crisis can be extremely dangerous if cortisol levels aren’t replenished. It’s a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical treatment. (10)  

Treatment involves an immediate injection of hydrocortisone into a muscle or vein. Hydrocortisone is the name for cortisol when supplied as a medication. It can be used for a variety of conditions such as high blood calcium, thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, dermatitis, and asthma.

Cortisol Issues For Women

Elevated cortisol may be associated with Cushing’s syndrome, and may also be caused by some tumors. A loss of sex drive, as well as irregularities in the duration and intensity of menstrual cycles, can also result from high levels of cortisol in women.

Rising cortisol levels have been associated with poor health, including lower bone density in older women. (11) 

Can I Reduce Cortisol Naturally?

  • Lowering stress: Aim to reduce anxiety by avoiding stressful situations, and where possible learn how to cope with stress better. Be Serene is packed with natural ingredients that are proven to lower reactivity to stress. Reducing anxiousness and nervousness, Be Serene is effective in the fight against stress and can return the mind and body to a state of calm.
  • Good diet: A healthy and balanced diet can help keep cortisol at optimum levels. Foods such as dark chocolate, bananas, and yogurts rich in probiotics may help. Drink green or black tea, and keep hydration levels by drinking plenty of water. (12)  
  • Sleep well: Lack of sleep can lead to increased levels of cortisol. Avoid coffee late at night – caffeine can interfere with sleep. (5) 
  • Relaxation: Methods such as meditation can help the body to stay relaxed and may help to fight against stress. (13) 
  • Laughter: One study has suggested cortisol may decrease in response to laughter. (14) 
  • Exercise: Although exercising at moderate levels during the day can increase cortisol levels, studies have shown those levels significantly decreased during the night. (15) 
  • Relationships: Maintaining healthy and happy relationships can lead to lower levels of stress. 

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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stress, stress hormone response, stress hormones