What Is Cortisol?

Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.

Your adrenal glands -- triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys -- make cortisol.

It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but cortisol plays an important role in a number of things your body does. For example, it:

  • Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Regulates your blood pressure
  • Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward

How Does It Work?

Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland -- both located in your brain -- can sense if your blood contains the right level of cortisol. If the level is too low, your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it makes. Your adrenal glands pick up on these signals. Then, they fine-tune the amount of cortisol they release.

Cortisol receptors -- which are in most cells in your body -- receive and use the hormone in different ways. Your needs will differ from day to day. For instance, when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.

Sometimes, your cortisone levels can get out of whack.

Too Much Stress

After the pressure or danger has passed, your cortisol level should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal.

But what if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on?

It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including:

Too Much Cortisol

A nodule (mass) in your adrenal gland or a tumor in the brain’s pituitary gland can trigger your body to make too much cortisol. This can cause a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. It can lead to rapid weight gain, skin that bruises easily, muscle weakness, diabetes, and many other health problems.

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Too Little Cortisol

If your body doesn’t make enough of this hormone, you have a condition doctors call Addison’s

disease. Usually, the symptoms appear over time. They include:

  • Changes in your skin, like darkening on scars and in skin folds
  • Being tired all the time
  • Muscle weakness that grows worse
  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Low blood pressure

If your body isn’t making enough cortisol, you can take supplements to replace it. You doctor may prescribe hydrocortisone tablets for this purpose.

Maintaining Healthy Cortisone Levels

The easiest way to keep your cortisol levels normal and functioning the right way is to cut stress. Try these simple tips to keep your body’s fight-or-flight instinct in check:

  • Eat well, exercise, and get lots of sleep.
  • Get a massage.
  • Go outside. Meet up with friends. Find ways to help others in your community.
  • Laugh, it’s one of the best stress-busters around (it’s free).
  • Take up a hobby.
  • Try deep breathing, yoga, or meditation.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 23, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Hormone Health Network (Endocrine Society): “What Does Cortisol Do?”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Adrenal Glands.”

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science: “The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.”

Pituitary Network Association: “Adrenal Insufficiency.”

Mayo Clinic: “Stress Management.”

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