Cortisol - All about the stress hormone!

Published Apr 9, 2023 • By Polina Kochetkova

Do you wonder what happens to your body when you feel stressed? In this article, we talk about the stress hormone – cortisol. We discuss the effects cortisol has on the physical and mental well-being, explain the cortisol production process and describe the importance of keeping your cortisol levels stable.

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Cortisol - All about the stress hormone!

How is the stress hormone, cortisol produced?

Cortisol is one of the hormones, synthesized from cholesterol. The endocrine system's key component, the adrenal glands, which are situated above the kidneys, are in charge of producing a number of hormones that regulate critical physiological functions like metabolism, blood pressure, and stress responses. One of the most important hormones the adrenal glands produce - cortisol, a glucocorticoid, is crucial to the body's ability to respond to stress, inflammation, and maintain metabolic homeostasis. Cortisol production is regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex generating system. Stress causes the hypothalamus to release the corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which causes the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). In response to ACTH, the adrenal glands then begin to produce cortisol. The hormone is often referred to as the “stress hormone”, as the levels of cortisol rise during a stressful episode. The hormone triggers the “fight or flight” response in the body, with the intention of aiding during difficult or stressful situations, faced on the daily basis.

What does cortisol do in the body?

The main function of cortisol is responding to stress and preparing the body and mind to deal with a turbulent situation. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid and as almost all body tissues contain glucocorticoid receptors, cortisol can have an impact on many body systems:

  • Nervous
  • Cardio
  • Immune
  • Respiratory
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Reproductive

Firstly, cortisol is in charge of stimulating gluconeogenesis, which is how the liver creates glucose from amino acids to keep blood sugar levels stable. During stressful times, cortisol reserves glucose for the brain and other vital organs.

Secondly, cortisol impacts the immune system and lowers the production of cytokines, which are molecules that encourage inflammation, therefore the hormone can have anti-inflammatory effects.

Thirdly, cortisol has effects on the metabolism. It is involved in the process of fats, proteins and carbohydrates allocation, in the body, for energy.

Lastly, cortisol helps us to be mentally ready for an important event, building stress resistance, while keeping the mind on high alert. Catabolic mechanisms of cortisol give energy to the body.

Why cortisol levels are important?

The levels of cortisol change according to the time of the day, the intensity of the internal environment, daily diet, medication and more. The studies show, that cortisol levels variate throughout the day. The biggest amount of cortisol is released in the morning, after waking up and the lowest cortisol levels are present late at night. Keeping your cortisol levels in check is essential for the overall health, mental and physical.

Constant stressful environment can boost cortisol synthesis and over time lead to depression and anxiety, which is one of the reasons why it is important to regulate your cortisol levels.

Moreover, constant stress can lead to higher blood sugar levels, muscle weakness, cardiac diseases, weight gain and other health issues. The illness associated with too much cortisol is called Cushing’s syndrome and can have serious negative effects, if not treated. However, Cushing’s syndrome is most commonly caused by steroid medicine and not the natural over-production of cortisol in the body. The symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include: incorrect fat allocation in the body (extra fat allocated on the tummy, chest and back of the neck, with slim legs and arms), red puffy face, easily bruised skin, large purple color stretch marks, low libido and more.

Low levels of cortisol project themselves with following symptoms: low resistance to stressful situations, lack of focus, cravings for sweet or salty foods, depression, anxiety, fatigue and more. Low cortisol levels can be caused by multiple factors, including Addison’s disease, anti-inflammatory conditions and more.

How to regulate cortisol levels ?

In order to keep your cortisol levels in check, it is recommended to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, have a nutritional daily diet, exercise and take time to relax and unwind.

Healthy sleep

Good quality sleep is one of the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle, providing many positive changes to our life. Sleeping 6 – 8 hours on a regular, having a proper bed routine, decreasing the digital devices usage couple hours before sleep and keeping your bedroom clean, can significantly improve the quality of life and help regulate cortisol levels.


One of the ways to stabilize cortisol levels is to exercise. Depending on the intensity of the chosen exercise, it can both reduce and increase the cortisol presence in the body. Walking is a great way to relax and let your cortisol levels to stabilize. According to the Harvard Medical Journal, aerobics can be a great option to unwind and let your body reset. It is vital to remember that first steps are always the hardest and cause stress, however once the exercising becomes regular, it can have the opposite effects. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and other stress-reduction practices can all help lower cortisol levels as well. Due to lower intensity, these exercises can be a good start for most people.

Nutritional diet

Cortisol levels are greatly influenced by nutrition as well. Maintaining healthy cortisol levels can be achieved by eating a balanced, healthy diet. Removing sugar and processed foods could help regulate blood sugar levels, which then can help control cortisol levels. Additionally, eating magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens can help lower cortisol levels.

Balanced schedule

Finally, it's critical to take breaks frequently throughout the day to manage stress levels and maintain healthy cortisol levels. It can be beneficial to take a brief break from work, go for a stroll, or participate in deep breathing exercises to lower stress and preserve healthy cortisol levels.

Overall, cortisol is an essential hormone that is crucial to many of the body's key functions. However, consistently high levels of cortisol can cause a number of harmful health effects. Therefore, it's crucial to keep cortisol levels at bay in order to manage stress, help regulate blood pressure & blood sugar levels and insure proper immune system function.

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avatar Polina Kochetkova

Author: Polina Kochetkova, Health Writer

Polina is a content creator at Carenity, specialised in health writing. Polina is pursuing her bachelors in fashion marketing from IFA Paris University and in her spare time loves to play tennis and listen to music.

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