Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response, however, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress. Understanding cortisol and its affect on the body will help you balance your hormones and achieve good health.

Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands. Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a combination glands often referred to as the HPA axis.

What does Cortisol do?

Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

Problems associated with High Cortisol levels

A high cortisol level can mean several things. High cortisol may be referred to as Cushing syndrome. This condition results from your body making too much cortisol. (Similar symptoms can arise after taking high doses of corticosteroids, so it’s that this be ruled out before testing for Cushing syndrome.

Several things can contribute to the development of high cortisol –

Stress triggers a combination of signals from both hormones and nerves. These signals cause your adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The result is an increase in heart rate and energy as part of the fight-or-flight response. It’s your body’s way of preparing itself for potentially dangerous or harmful situations.

Cortisol also helps to limit any functions that aren’t essential in a fight-or-flight situation. Once the threat passes, your hormones return to their usual levels. This whole process can be a lifesaver. But when you’re under constant stress, this response doesn’t always turn off.

Certain medications can cause an increase in cortisol levels. Corticosteroid medications used to treat asthma, arthritis, certain cancers, and other conditions can also cause high cortisol levels when taken in high doses or for a long period of time. Some of the commonly prescribed corticosteroids include:

  • Prednisone (Deltasone, Prednicot, Rayos)
  • Cortisone (Cortone Acetate)
  • Methylprednisolone (Medrol, MethylPREDNISolone Dose Pack)
  • Dexamethasone (Dexamethasone Intensol, DexPak, Baycadron)

Finding the right dose and taking corticosteroids as prescribed can help reduce the risk of high cortisol levels. Steroid medications should never be stopped without gradual tapering. Abruptly stopping can cause low levels of cortisol. This can cause low blood pressure and blood sugar, even coma and death. Always speak to your doctor before making any changes to your dosing schedule when taking corticosteroids.

Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost all of your body’s processes, increasing your risk of many health issues, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression

Everyone has high cortisol from time to time. It’s part of your body’s natural response to threats of harm or danger. But having high cortisol over a longer period of time can increase your risk of serious health conditions, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • osteoporosis
  • insulin resistance and diabetes
The effects of Low Cortisol levels

Low cortisol levels can cause a condition known as primary adrenal insufficiency or Addison disease. While rare, primary adrenal insufficiency is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the adrenal glands. Symptoms may start slowly, but they can be quite serious. Patients with primary adrenal insufficiency can experience fatigue, muscle loss, weight loss, mood swings, and changes to the skin.

Need help managing a Cortisol imbalance?

Questions I can probably help with include:

  • How do cortisol levels vary throughout the day?
  • What underlying factors could be affecting my cortisol levels?
  • How can I manage cortisol levels to regain my health?