Hormone 101: Cortisol your stress response

Hormone: Cortisol

Where it is released from?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal cortex. It is secreted by the adrenal glands into the body and its release is triggered by stress and blood sugar levels.


What’s the main function?

Cortisol is an essential hormone for human health as it helps regulate metabolism and in times of stress is released to support the body in its response. Another hormone released from the adrenals is adrenaline and although they come from two separate parts of the gland - cortisol from the outer part and adrenalin from the inner part - they both play a huge role in the body’s reaction to stress. Adrenalin helps the body respond almost instantaneously in acute stressful situations, whereas cortisol’s effects and responses in the body take a little more time. In survival mode, the correct amounts of cortisol can be life saving as its affects help maintain blood pressure.


What are the effects of imbalances?

Imbalances in the body’s stress hormones can cause a variety of symptoms linked to mental health such as depression, anxiety, mood swings and insomnia and in some cases can eventually lead to infertility. An excess of both these hormones can make you feel jittery, anxious, unable to sleep, irritable and lead to adrenal exhaustion. A chronic deficiency can also cause mental health problems however physical symptoms are energy depletive and can leave you feeling sluggish and fatigued, even after sleep.

The issue with remaining in the alarmed state is that our hormones and our health, suffer. Our endocrine system typically starts producing more stress hormones at the expense of sex hormones. This imbalance can eventually lead to mood swings, exhaustion and a low sex drive. If the adrenals are continually activated over a prolonged period time, we could burn out. The body then could very easily run out of ways to create sex hormones, cortisol levels would drop and in due course lead to a crash. When hormones are this level of deficiency in this crash state, there are serious implications for the body and mental health.


How does it relate to your lifestyle?

For many of us stress has just become a natural part of life and although our bodies are designed to respond to stress in protective ways - too much stress can be very damaging. Many of us may relate to being stressed at times of dramatic change or trauma but it also may be a state that’s so familiar that we aren’t able to identify it as something alarming anymore, but rather just as an inevitable part of life. There’s wisdom in that - in acceptance and adjusting to the ever evolving fast past of the human experience. But it’s also important for us to be aware of how much control we could have over managing our stress better within this environment.


Prolonged elevated cortisol levels during a persistent state of stress can comprise our immune system, increase our blood pressure and in turn lead to serious mental and physical health problems. Have you ever been on holiday after a few very stressful weeks or months at work only to suddenly fall ill?  It’s common to get sick whilst on holiday after long periods of high stress. If too much cortisol has been compromising your immune system, it’s likely you’d fall ill sooner or later and more a matter of when. The holiday may just be allowing the body to catch up and provide enough space for us to notice. Either way, elevated stress hormones are good for us, life-saving even, when they are in balance. Understanding cortisol and how it works may highlight key issues for you around your stress levels, especially if it’s something you struggle with and has been weighing you down. There’s no time like the present to do some evaluating.


Words by Amy Mabin


Read more of our Hormone 101 series:


Adrenaline: your survival response, Estrogen, Testosterone

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