Cortisol – The Stress Hormone

Cortisol The Stress Hormone

Cortisol is a hormone which is released by the body when it is faced with certain day-to-day activities and situations. It has received a lot of press recently and is also known as the stress hormone. When the body becomes stressed then this hormone is released.

On a short term level this is very helpful, as it helps the body to be more alert and responsive but on a long term basis can become detrimental to the health.

So what is this stress hormone? How does it affect you and what can you do to bring your these hormone levels into balance?

What is Cortisol?

Kidney and adrenals

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands (the adrenals are located at the top of each kidney.) This hormone is released by the body with:

  • Fasting
  • Food intake
  • Exercising
  • Awakening
  • Psychosocial stressors


Cortisol is actually a very important part of the body's functioning. The optimum level of this hormone in the body should be a moderate amount. Indeed this hormone helps you to stay alert and improve performance. According to a scientific paper on  by Len Kravitz at the University of New Mexico, when someone has a life without stress, “an individual will lose his/her ability to react to the different challenges of life.” So some stress is important.

What has happened recently is that the body has become 'bathed' in high levels of this stress hormone on a consistent basis. This is due to the stressful lives a lot of people are now living. Instead of us having time to allow the cortisol levels to drop we go from one stressful situation to another.

Sunrise and sunset

Cortisol is naturally released by the body in an irregular manner every day with peak secretions around 8 AM ( helping you to get up ) and drops off in the afternoon and evening. The lowest level of cortisol is around midnight ( allowing you to sleep).

What Does Cortisol Do?

Exotic fruit

According to this scientific paper by Len Kravitz at the University of New Mexico cortisol has the following functions within the body:

  • Regulates energy: Cortisol regulates energy by selecting the correct type of substrate ( carbohydrate, fat or protein) that is needed by the body to meet whatever psychological demands that are placed on it.
  • Mobilises energy: Cortisol mobilises energy by tapping into the body's fat resources and moves it from one location to another e.g. to a muscle group which needs it.
  • Provides the body with protein: Under stressful situations cortisol can provide the body with protein for energy production.
  • Moves fat: Cortisol can move fat from storage depots and relocate it to fat cell deposits deep in the abdomen.
  • Anti-inflammatory agent
  • Suppressing the immune system: It suppresses the immune system especially during time of physical and psychological stress. You can therefore do things above and beyond what your body would usually allow you to do.

What are the Side-Effects of High Levels of Cortisol?

Overweight scales

According to Dawson Church, PhD of the Foundation for Epigenetic Medicine, the side-effects of high levels of cortisol over a period of time can be as follows:

  • Increase of belly fat
  • Decrease of muscle mass and bone mass
  • Increase in osteoporosis
  • Lowering of skin elasticity
  • Difficulty in converting short-term memories into long-term memories
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immunity
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Metabolic problems
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease

Bringing Cortisol into Balance

There are various drugs and supplements which have been said to reduce cortisol levels. According to Dr Church, these drugs and supplements have possible side-effects. The side-effects can include stripping, “ the body of cortisol's precursor molecules which are used for cell repair when we are in a relaxed state.” Essentially by taking these drugs cortisol will drop but so will the body's ability to repair cells.

In a randomised trial led by Dr Church, it was shown that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – a technique based on acupressure points) was able to reduce cortisol levels within one hour by 24%. The decline in the stress hormone also correlated with a decline in anxiety, depression and other psychological systems as measured by a standard psychological assessment tool. This was compared to a 14% reduction when subjects were given an hour of rest or psychotherapy.

According to Dr Kravitz stress can be managed by doing:


Cortisol is receiving more and more publicity but as we've seen it is not as bad as we think if it is in a balanced amount.

Indeed it is an important part of the body's everyday activities from mobilising energy to moving fat. Too much as we have seen has a detrimental affect on our health.

Tools like EFT, meditation and exercise are a powerful way of reducing high cortisol levels.

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