What Is Cortisol?

Crescent pose, lunge

Brook Pifer / Iconica / Getty Images

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a naturally-occurring steroid hormone that plays a key role in the body's stress response. While it is often called "the stress hormone" for its best-known role, it also contributes to many of the body's processes. It's secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the regulation of the following functions and more:

  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Glucose metabolism
  • Immune function
  • Inflammatory response
  • Insulin release

The adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress or fear as part of the body's fight or flight response. When confronted by some type of threat in your environment, your body goes through a series of near-instantaneous reactions that prepare you to either stay and deal with the problem or escape to safety.

A brain structure known as the amygdala alerts the hypothalamus, which then signals a range of responses including the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Cortisol is important for your body to function normally, but too much cortisol can be bad for your health.

Signs of High Cortisol

When cortisol levels stay too high, you might experience a range of unwanted symptoms. Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (such as those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:

  • Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decreases in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Increased abdominal fat
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
  • Suppressed thyroid function

These negative effects also often come with their own consequences. For example, increased abdominal fat is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat include an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).

Chronic high cortisol levels can also lead to a condition known as Cushing syndrome. Causes can include adrenal tumors or the prolonged use of glucocorticoids. Symptoms of Cushing syndrome can also include high blood sugars with increased thirst and urination, osteoporosis, depression, and more frequent infections.

Impact of Cortisol

Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate at different times in the day. For example, normally, cortisol is present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at it is lowest at night. The cycle repeats daily.

Cortisol levels can also fluctuate based on what a person is experiencing. For instance, although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s stress response and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.

Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:

  • A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
  • Heightened alertness
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body

Some people experience a greater spike in cortisol than others when they experience stress. It is also possible to minimize the amount of cortisol you secrete in response to stressors. Stress management techniques are one way that you can manage how you experience stress and possibly reduce cortisol levels in your body.

Tips for Controlling Cortisol

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place.

The following have been found by many to be very helpful in relaxing the body and mind, aiding the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels:

Getting more information on stress and resources to help you to manage it can help you to build habits that can help you to cope with stress once your stress response is triggered.

If you’re more sensitive to stress, it’s especially important for you to learn stress management techniques and maintain a low-stress lifestyle. This is a great way to get cortisol secretion under control and maintain a healthy lifestyle at the same time.

Challenges

Unfortunately, it may not always be possible to keep cortisol levels in check. Some other possible problems:

  • Cortisol secretion varies among individuals. People are biologically "wired" to react differently to stress. One person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. And this tendency can change at different times in a person's life.
  • Studies have also shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress also tend to eat more food and food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol.
  • People with depression may also have elevated cortisol levels in their bloodstream. Stress management techniques to help lower these levels may be an important coping tool for people who are experiencing symptoms of depression.

While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.

If you are struggling to manage stress or are experiencing signs of chronically high cortisol, don't hesitate to look to your doctor for help.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Van der Valk ES, Savas M, Van Rossum EFC. Stress and obesity: Are there more susceptible individuals?. Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):193-203. doi:10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the Stress Response.

  3. Wippert PM, Rector M, Kuhn G, Wuertz-Kozak K. Stress and Alterations in Bones: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2017;8:96. doi:10.3389/fendo.2017.00096

  4. Hewagalamulage SD, Lee TK, Clarke IJ, Henry BA. Stress, cortisol, and obesity: A role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domest Anim Endocrinol. 2016;56 Suppl:S112-S120. doi:10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004

  5. Chaudhry HS, Singh G. Cushing Syndrome. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated December 14, 2019.

  6. Hannibal KE, Bishop MD. Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014;94(12):1816-1825. doi:10.2522/ptj.20130597

  7. Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(2):e0172873. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817

  8. Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

  9. Thirthalli J, Naveen GH, Rao MG, Varambally S, Christopher R, Gangadhar BN. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian J Psychiatry. 2013;55(Suppl 3):S405-S408. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.116315

  10. Yau YH, Potenza MN. Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013;38(3):255-267.