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Everything you need to know about cortisol

Female hiking in mountains with happy expression and blue jacket
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, but is it good or bad? We look at the link between cortisol and stress. Discover all you need to know here.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone which helps regulate a variety of vital processes within your body.

It helps with your metabolism and immune system, as well as playing a vital role in helping your body respond to stressful situations.

However, when your cortisol levels are too high, for too long the hormone can be more damaging than helpful.1

Over time, high levels of cortisol can impact your:

  • Weight
  • Blood pressure
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Energy levels

Cortisol may even be a contributor to diabetes, so it’s definitely something you should be taking seriously.

Which is why we’ve put together this all-inclusive guide to cortisol.

We’ve pulled together as much information as possible to help you understand this vital hormone.

What is cortisol?

To best understand cortisol, you should think of it as your built-in alarm system.

As your body’s main stress hormone, cortisol works with specific areas of your brain to control:

  • Mood
  • Motivation
  • Fear

What is the function in the body?

Cortisol is made in your adrenal glands which are the triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys.

Cortisol plays a significant role in a number of areas that contribute to your body functioning. It’s release into the blood and is then transported around the body.

Every one of your cells contains receptors for cortisol, so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which cell it is acting upon.2

For example, cortisol:

  • Supports your body in using carbohydrates, fats and proteins
  • May help with inflammation
  • Regulates blood sugar, or glucose
  • Helps control your sleep/awake cycle
  • Provides energy so you can cope with stress and restore balance after stress

A comparable type of this hormone, known as corticosterone is produced by rodents, birds and reptiles.

What does cortisol do to the body?

The production of cortisol by the adrenal glands is managed by the pituitary gland.

This is the pea-sized gland which sits at the base of your brain, which is sometimes known as the “master gland” due to the huge effect It has on the whole body.

It’s very clever, because when you wake, exercise or going through a stressful experience, your pituitary gland reacts by sending a signal to your adrenal glands so they know what quantity of cortisol to produce.

If your level is too low, your brain regulates the volume of hormones it creates.

These signals are then received by your adrenal glands and the amount of cortisol they release is fine-tuned to ensure you are creating the correct amount.

Is cortisol good or bad?

Because of its reputation and connections with stress, cortisol is often seen as the ‘bad’ hormone. But that’s not strictly fair.

Thing is, it plays that many roles, some of which we are still learning about and researching, that cortisol has its work cut out in terms of popularity.

But put it this way, without cortisol you would be slower to react to stressful situation, we may not recognise fearful or dangerous situations in the same way without it.

So, it’s probably unfair to say it’s bad. It’s probably more the managing of your levels that can cause the problem.

What causes high levels of cortisol?

High levels of cortisol can cause various symptoms throughout the body, which can vary depending on what it is that is causing the increase in your cortisol levels.

Signs that you may be creating too much cortisol include:

13 symptoms of high levels of cortisol

  1. Weight gain around the midsection and upper back
  2. Rounding of the face
  3. Acne
  4. Thinning skin
  5. Bruising easily
  6. Flushed face
  7. Slower healing
  8. Muscle weakness
  9. Severe fatigue
  10. Irritability
  11. Difficulty concentrating
  12. High blood pressure
  13. Headaches

What is high and low cortisol levels?

Tests can detect whether you have too high or too low cortisol levels – usually this is done through a blood, urine or saliva test.

Too much cortisol is known as Cushing syndrome, whereas too little cortisol is known as Addison’s disease.

These tests will also help screen for other diseases that may affect your pituitary and adrenal glands.

Both of these disorders are very rare. Cushing syndrome is most common in people who take steroid tablets or medicine for long periods of time.

This is because steroids contain a synthetic cortisol, and it’s rare that your body would produce too much cortisol.3

Addison’s disease is a rare condition of the adrenal glands. Around 8,400 people in the UK have Addison’s disease.

It can affect any age, however it is more common between people aged between 30 and 50. It’s also statistically more common in women than men.4

What to do if you have high/low levels

Both high and low levels of cortisol are treated through medication.

This is something that you will be prescribed by your doctor or health professional after it has been confirmed through a cortisol blood test.

What does high cortisol feel like?

There is no specific answer for what high cortisol might feel like. However, it’s considered that you are like to put on weight.

Weight gain through high cortisol levels is quite common, particularly around the face and midriff.

How can you test your levels?

Cortisol levels will be tested by your doctor via a blood, saliva or urine test. There is no test you can do at home to test this.

Ways that you either reduce or improve cortisol levels

As well as responding to stress and other emotions that your body experiences, cortisol levels fluctuate accordingly to things such as your sleeping pattern, the foods you eat and exercise schedule, which can all help control your stress levels.

Because of the frequent hormone changes with the monthly menstrual cycle, pregnancy or the menopause, women can especially experience a constant change in cortisol levels, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis.

7 ways to reduce cortisol levels

You can try and reduce your cortisol levels naturally with these tips: 

  1. Look at your sleeping pattern

Try and go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.

This creates a good circadian rhythm, which helps naturally keep your hormone balance naturally.

  1. Limit your alcohol intake

While you might think that alcohol relaxes you, it actually increases cortisol.

  1. Pay attention to your diet

Avoid caffeine, sugar and processed foods where possible. Better eating and a healthy, balanced diet can help improve your wellbeing.

Handpicked content: Healthier snack swaps to improve your diet

  1. Find a suitable exercise regime

Exercising can help regulate your cortisol activity. However, working too hard and overtraining without enough rest can increase cortisol.

Maybe consider exercises like yoga, Pilates or walking to help relax your mind and body.

  1. Consider massage

Get a monthly massage to reduce your stress levels and relax your muscles.

  1. Try meditation

Meditation can help slow your mind down, reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Breathing deeply to relax may also help.

  1. Consider a supplement

Talk to your doctor or healthcare professional about taking dietary supplements such as vitamin B complex, vitamin C and fish oil.

Your intake levels may wary so seek advice beforehand.

Last updated: 19 August 2021

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
 

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