Cortisol: What It Is, Function, Symptoms & Levels 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands, situated on top of your kidneys. This essential hormone plays a pivotal role in various bodily functions and primarily helps regulate your body’s response to stress. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the intricacies of cortisol, from its functions to symptoms associated with its levels. Let’s embark on this informative journey and understand cortisol better. 

What is Cortisol? 

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is crucial for various bodily functions and helps regulate metabolism, immune response, and blood pressure. Cortisol plays a vital role in helping your body respond to stress effectively. 

Is Cortisol a Stress Hormone? 

Yes, cortisol is often called the stress hormone because it is released in response to stress and helps your body cope with challenging situations. When you encounter a stressful situation, your adrenal glands release cortisol, which provides the energy and focus needed to tackle the stressor. 

What Does Cortisol Do to My Body? 

Cortisol affects several aspects of your body, including: 

  • Metabolism: Cortisol helps regulate glucose metabolism, ensuring a steady supply of energy for your body. 
  • Immune Response: It has anti-inflammatory properties and helps suppress the immune system’s response to reduce inflammation. 
  • Blood Pressure: Cortisol can increase blood pressure to provide more oxygen to the muscles during stress. 
  • Anti-Stress: It assists in managing stress by increasing alertness and energy. 

How Does My Body Control Cortisol Levels? 

Cortisol levels are tightly controlled by a feedback system known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When cortisol levels are low, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Once cortisol levels are sufficient, the HPA axis shuts down to maintain balance. 

What Tests Can Check Cortisol Levels? 

To assess cortisol levels, doctors may recommend the following tests: 

  • Blood Tests: A blood test can measure the cortisol concentration in your bloodstream. 
  • Urine Tests: A 24-hour urine collection can provide insights into your cortisol levels. 

What Are Normal Cortisol Levels? 

Normal cortisol levels can vary throughout the day, with higher levels in the morning and lower levels in the evening. Typically, a morning cortisol level of 6-23 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) is considered normal, while evening levels should be lower. 

What Causes High Levels of Cortisol? 

High cortisol levels, known as hypercortisolism or Cushing’s syndrome, can be caused by various factors, including: 

  • Chronic Stress: Prolonged stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels. 
  • Medications: Certain medications can increase cortisol production. 
  • Cushing’s Disease: A tumor in the pituitary gland or adrenal glands can lead to excess cortisol production. 

What Are the Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels? 

The symptoms of high cortisol levels may include: 

  • Weight gain, especially in the abdomen 
  • Fatigue 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Mood swings 
  • Increased thirst and urination 
  • Muscle weakness 

What Causes Low Levels of Cortisol? 

Low cortisol levels, known as hypocortisolism or Addison’s disease, can be caused by factors such as: 

  • Adrenal Gland Issues: Damage or disease affecting the adrenal glands can reduce cortisol production. 
  • Autoimmune Conditions: Conditions like autoimmune adrenalitis can cause low cortisol levels. 

What Are the Symptoms of Low Cortisol Levels? 

The symptoms of low cortisol levels may include: 

  • Fatigue and weakness 
  • Weight loss 
  • Dizziness and fainting 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Skin changes, such as darkening 

How Can I Reduce My Cortisol Levels? 

Managing cortisol levels is essential for overall well-being. You can reduce cortisol levels through: 

  • Stress Management: Practices like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can help reduce stress and cortisol levels. 
  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can positively impact cortisol levels. 
  • Adequate Sleep: Ensuring a good night’s sleep is crucial for cortisol regulation. 

When Should I See My Doctor About My Cortisol Levels? 

If you experience persistent symptoms related to high or low cortisol levels, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional. They can perform the necessary tests and recommend appropriate treatment or lifestyle changes. 

Conclusion 

In conclusion, cortisol, the “stress hormone,” plays a vital role in regulating various bodily functions. Understanding cortisol and its effects on your body is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. By managing stress, getting adequate sleep, and adopting a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep your cortisol levels in check and lead a more balanced life. 

Originally published by Gainswave.
Medically reviewed by David Cunningham, MD, GAINSWave’s Clinical Advisor.

References

  1. How stress affects your health. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/health. Accessed March 19, 2021.
  2. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body. Accessed March 19, 2021.
  3. Lower stress: How does stress affect the body? American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/lower-stress-how-does-stress-affect-the-body. Accessed March 18, 2021.
  4. Stress and your health. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/good-mental-health/stress-and-your-health. Accessed March 18, 2021.
  5. Seaward BL. Essentials of Managing Stress. 5th ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2021.
  6. Seaward BL. Managing Stress: Skills for Self-Care, Personal Resiliency and Work-Life Balance in a Rapidly Changing World. 10th ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2022.
  7. Olpin M, et al. Stress Management for Life. 5th ed. Cengage Learning; 2020.
  8. Alvaro Ocampo (expert opinion). Gainswave Clinic. November 20, 2023.

FAQs 

Can stress lead to high cortisol levels?

Yes, chronic stress can elevate cortisol levels, leading to various health issues. 

Are there natural ways to reduce cortisol levels?

Yes, practices like meditation, exercise, and sufficient sleep can help lower cortisol levels. 

What is the role of cortisol in metabolism?

Cortisol regulates glucose metabolism, ensuring a steady supply of energy for the body. 

What are the common symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome?

Common symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, high blood pressure, mood swings, and increased thirst. 

How are cortisol levels tested?

Cortisol levels can be measured through blood tests or 24-hour urine collection. 

If you experience persistent symptoms related to cortisol levels, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and guidance. 

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