Cortisol, What Is It & What Does It Do?

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What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is often considered a “stress hormone” because of its link with our stress response, however, it is much more than a hormone released during stress. It is one of the steroid hormones produced from cholesterol made in the adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. Cortisol is generally released in response to events and conditions such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress.  It is a crucial hormone to maintain our well-being being.

What does Cortisol Do?

Cortisol has far-reaching, systematic effects that play an important role in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain homeostasis.  Most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, and thus it affects various functions in the body. Cortisol can help in controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation and assisting with memory formulation. It also has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps in controlling blood pressure. In women, cortisol can help support the developing fetus during pregnancy. Besides, it also plays a vital role in human nutrition by regulating energy selecting the right type and amount of substrate (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) the body needs to meet physiological demands that arise.

However, when chronically elevated or lowered, it can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk. Cortisol is best known for its flight-or-fight response and momentary amplification in energy production at the expense of processes that are not required for immediate survival. The resulting biochemical and hormonal imbalances occur due to a hormonally driven negative feedback loop. To know cortisol and its effect on the body better will help you balance your hormones and achieve an overall good health.

Problems Associated with High Cortisol Levels

Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes

In stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by connecting with protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can work in an individual flight or flee stressor but over the long term, elevated cortisol consistently produces glucose leading to increased blood sugar levels. Thus, this mechanism increases the risk for type 2 diabetes.


Weight Gain and Obesity

Continuous elevation of cortisol and can result in weight gain. This might be noticed by the doctors because of an individual’s slender arms and legs compared to the heavyweight in the core of the body.  Due to the blood-sugar insulin problem caused by cortisol, consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. But those cells are in need of energy and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. As a result, this leads to overeating and rapid weight gain. Cortisol also indirectly stimulates the appetite by modulating other hormones and stress-responsive factors known to influence appetite.

Suppression of Immune System

One of the functions of cortisol is to reduce inflammation in the body, which is a good thing, but over time, this function also suppresses the immune system. Chronic inflammation that is caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and strain keeps the cortisol levels soaring, wreaking havoc on the immune system. An unrestrained immune system responding to relentless inflammation can lead to myriad problems: increasing vulnerability to colds and other illness, increasing the risk of cancer, the tendency to develop food allergies and most likely an increased risk of autoimmune disease.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system helping to cause all the physiologic responses. As a rule, the parasympathetic nervous system is then suppressed since the two cannot operate at the same time. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated during quiet activities such as eating. And when a cortisol-flooded, stressed-out body consumes food, digestion and absorption are compromised, indigestion develops and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cortisol compresses blood vessels and increases blood pressure to boosting the delivery of oxygenated blood.  This is beneficial for fight-or-flight situations but in overtime, such arterial constriction, and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup- the ideal state of a heart attack.

Fertility Problems

High cortisol level relating to prolonged stress can lend itself to erectile dysfunction or the interruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles.  In addition, androgenic sex hormones are made in the same glands as cortisol and so excess cortisol production can hamper their production.


Other issues from elevated cortisol include insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression and other conditions.


Effects of Low Cortisol Levels

Low cortisol levels can cause a condition called Addison’s disease. Although rare, Addison disease is an autoimmune disease which causes damage to the adrenal glands. Symptoms may include fatigue, muscle loss, weight loss, mood swings and changes to the skin.


How to control your cortisol levels?

By now, it may seem like stressed-out folks are destined for failed health. Fortunately, there are precautions that you can take to reverse the path of destruction. The best way to control your cortisol level and keep it at bay is by stress management and optimizing diet.

Stress Management:

Strategies to stress management include getting more and better quality sleep, breath work, acupuncture, cardio/resistance/relaxation exercises and identifying psychological/emotional issues. Stress management often requires a team effort, so it is recommended to consult an expert in counseling.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet:

Lifestyle factors are crucial and the most significant modulators of inflammation. There is no perfect anti-inflammatory diet but based on known properties of foods and clinical research, we can maintain a generally low-inflammatory diet and implement it over time. Most significant contributors to inflammation are high glycemic load, saturated and trans fatty acids, caffeine, excessive alcohol, low-fiber diet, insufficient intake of micronutrients and antioxidants. In order to minimize the inflammation, recommended diet should contain low glycemic load, elimination of trans fats, minimal ingestion of saturated fats, reduction of caffeine, boosting intake of whole plant foods to maximize the intake of fiber and regular exercise. Undoubtedly, these are general guidelines. Therapeutic nutritional recommendations vary from person to person according to their conditions, preferences, and goals.


Cortisol is an enthralling hormone that is important to nutrition science in many aspects. It is crucial to understand the science behind it including its behaviors and relation to other biochemical components, the immune system and health outcomes in order to treat people who seek dietary assistance.

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