Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/21/2022
Cortisol: the hormone of stress. Of course, cortisol has far more roles to play in the body than just elevating your stress levels. What are cortisol levels, and what role do those levels play in our mental and physical health? Can high cortisol lead to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders over time? To understand the answers to these questions, we need to more deeply explore the role of cortisol in your stress response.
Let’s start with the basics.
At its simplest, cortisol is just a hormone. Specifically, it’s a steroid hormone and a stress hormone synthesized from cholesterol by the adrenal gland and pituitary gland.
Nearly every tissue in your body has receptors for cortisol. When released, cortisol can affect pretty much every organ and system in the body.
That means that your cardiovascular system, your immune system, your nervous system, your respiratory system and even your reproductive system can all be affected by insufficient or excess cortisol.
What cortisol does to these systems varies somewhat from organ to organ, but cortisol, or the form of cortisol called glucocorticoids, can do a lot of things. One of the most well-known functions of cortisol is the stress response.
The stress response is a sort of call to action for your sympathetic nervous system. This system recognizes danger and is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze responses that you’ve probably heard of before.
Essentially, cortisol secretion happens in response to threats. That release results in your body staying at a heightened state of alertness, which then typically results in increased heart rate and respiratory rate.
Cortisol also affects the immune response, and can regulate certain glucose and protein reactions.
The level of cortisol in your body needs to be in balance for your body to function properly, and whether you have too much or too little cortisol, there can be side effects to imbalance from that normal cortisol level.
If you have too much cortisol, it can cause some serious issues. High blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, increased bruising, weak muscles, high blood sugar and other problems arise from elevated levels of cortisol.
In the worst circumstances, you might have adrenal disorder, Cushing’s syndrome, which could cause these effects.
But there’s another reason your cortisol levels might be elevated: times of stress.
When left unmanaged, the effects of stress can be bad because they may increase anxiety and cause long-term anxious responses.
Elevated cortisol levels, in the long term, can cause serious damage to your health, including aches and severe pain, increases in blood pressure, chest pain, racing heart rate, insomnia, sexual performance issues, digestive problems, weakened immune response, dizziness, headaches and muscle tension.
All of this can result not from a disorder, but simply from the pressure of everyday life that we all experience.
Of course, it might be the case that you have low cortisol levels, either as a result of an adrenal insufficiency or disorder like Addison’s disease, or for other reasons like an adrenal crisis.
At the lowest level, cortisol can cause decreases in body hair growth, low blood sugar, abdominal pain and fatigue, as well as weight loss, nausea, diarrhea and other symptoms.
While conditions like Cushing’s syndrome need to be treated by a healthcare professional, you can indeed lower your cortisol levels in certain circumstances, including those when cortisol levels are elevated due to stress.
Get better quality sleep.
Maintain supportive and healthy relationships.
Make time to enjoy life.
Consider deep breathing practices and exercises.
Doing these things will not only reduce the sources of stress in your daily life, but it’ll also provide you with relief from the stress you can’t escape.
Truth be told, stress is only part of the problem. If you have been experiencing chronic stress, it might lead to anxiety or even depression.
Taking care of your mental health might require more than a reduction in stress after your cortisol level has been high for a period of time.
Therapy might help you learn to think and live stress-free again, and one of the most effective forms of stress management and anxiety management today is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is essentially a strategy and response system for dealing with anxious or stressed out thoughts and learning to control them.
A mental health professional can help you better understand this and other therapeutic options, as well as suggest other treatment options for your conditions. These treatments might include changes to your lifestyle like getting more regular exercise or adopting a new diet, or a combination of medication and therapy.
They might also include yoga, meditation or even just talking with a trusted friend or family member about what’s going on. Maintaining supportive and healthy relationships is a major stress reliever.
The key to managing high levels of cortisol may be with testing and medication for adrenal disorders, but the more likely pathway to management for you is to manage your stress.
If you’re dealing with regular stress and seeing its influence on your health, it may be time to seek help in a professional setting.
The right next step for you? Talk to a healthcare provider.
Stress may never be something you eliminate, but treating it can help you regain your health and your happiness.