Cortisol is often blamed for causing stress. We’ll let you in on a little secret—it’s actually the other way around! Life causes stress, and cortisol is the body’s reaction to it.
Sometimes people or problems get the best of us, and our hormonal systems think we’re in danger. Although it doesn’t feel good, the racing heart and tense muscles you get after a stressful encounter are designed to keep you safe.
Stress and cortisol are closely connected. Learning to keep your cool can lower your cortisol levels and diminish the physiological symptoms of stress. In order to achieve that goal, let’s start by reviewing what cortisol is and how it functions within the body.
What cortisol is and how it works
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. A pair of adrenal glands is located right next to the kidneys in your abdomen. Adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream as a way of regulating many different systems within the body.
Cortisol levels in the bloodstream are dictated by what’s called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. That’s a fancy way of saying three parts of the body—the brain, pituitary gland and adrenal gland—each play a vital role in cortisol production.
When cortisol levels drop too low, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus releases a hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands. This causes the adrenal glands to release more cortisol into the bloodstream.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis creates a negative feedback loop. In other words, cortisol blocks the release of other hormones from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. As hormone levels decrease, so does cortisol, and the cycle continues. This is how the body maintains a healthy level of cortisol.
How cortisol protects bodily systems
Commonly referred to as “the stress hormone,” cortisol is best known for its stress response. But what many people don’t know is that cortisol is in charge of regulating many organs and their processes.
Here are some of the ways cortisol is an essential hormone in the body:
- Thyroid support: Cortisol monitors how many hormones are secreted from the thyroid gland. Much like cortisol, the thyroid gland is responsible for controlling many bodily systems. Thus, healthy cortisol levels help the thyroid maintain your metabolic rate and weight management.
- Consistent blood sugar: Cortisol stabilizes your blood sugar by speeding up the rate at which body cells absorb glucose. This can significantly reduce your risk of developing certain chronic diseases later in life. As a result, the body becomes more efficient at processing energy sources.
- Healthy immune response: Many people think inflammation is bad, but it’s an important part of the immune system’s response to pathogens and injuries. Cortisol triggers an appropriate level of inflammation around infected areas, helping your body combat illnesses and heal wounds.
The connection between cortisol and stress
When you experience a stressful situation, cortisol floods the bloodstream and triggers a fight-or-flight response. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between mortal danger and a mildly irritating co-worker. No matter the source of stress, your body will always react by raising cortisol levels.
Stress and the body are closely linked, which means people who are chronically stressed might start to notice physical symptoms. They might experience sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, increased heart rate or muscle tension—all of which spell bad news for their health.
Cortisol isn’t always the villain
Cortisol isn’t inherently evil. Too much of anything is bad in the body. Some cortisol is essential in order for our bodies to properly function. Stress is to blame for making you feel crummy—not cortisol. Your body is just trying to help you out!
When released in small doses, cortisol prepares your body to fight off stress. The hormone gives you a slight uptick in energy as a means to battle through the stressful situation. That burst of energy is accompanied by a feeling of alertness, keeping you mentally sharp in case a tiger sneaks up on you—or a looming deadline!
In order to tackle a threat, your body has to stay in top shape. You wouldn’t notice this in the moment, but stressful situations can temporarily bolster your immune system. Of course, improved immunity and other cortisol benefits only occur when cortisol is secreted in short bursts. High cortisol levels sustained for a long period of time are what lead to stress-related health consequences.
The big takeaway is that stress always comes first, and cortisol follows closely behind. If chronic stress is negatively impacting your health, practice coping techniques that alter how you respond to stressful situations. Some tried-and-true examples include meditation, journaling and deep breathing exercises. Over time, your body will learn to release less cortisol. You alone hold the power to put stress in its place!