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What is Cortisol?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cortisol is a type of hormone, called a corticosteroid hormone, produced by the body. It's sometimes called the “stress” hormone since people produce greater levels of it when under significant stress, especially during a “fight or flight” reaction. The adrenal gland, which is responsible for producing this hormone, creates it at varied levels throughout the day, but people tend to have the most available in the morning, and it decreases as the day progresses.

There are a few things that this stress hormone does that are very positive. It helps to reduce inflammation, and it can be produced as a medication called hydrocortisone. Hydrocortisone can be used topically to treat inflammatory skin condition, or it can be used in injectable form to reduce inflamed tissue. It’s a very beneficial treatment under many circumstances.

Additional benefits of cortisol include its ability to make sure needed sodium is not lost. It can also be helpful in increasing short-term memory and to help the liver remove toxins from the body.

This hormone does some very unhelpful things too, however. Chief among these are that it raises blood pressure, lowers bone density, reduces immune response, and has a potential effect on blood serum levels of glucose. When cortisol is fairly regulated and not produced in high amounts, these effects tend not to harm a person's health. For those with high levels of stress, extra amounts of this hormone may be very problematic, and it can even reduce serotonin, which helps to provide a sense of well-being and calm.

Abnormally high or abnormally low levels of this hormone are called hypercortisolism and hypocortisolism, respectively. Hypercortisolism can cause Cushing’s syndrome, which results in ultra-rapid weight gain, excess perspiration, easy bruising, and may cause psychological disorders. Hypocortisolism causes Addison’s disease, which can result in major weight loss, significant muscle pains, mood instability, and fatigue. Oral hydrocortisone can be used to treat a deficiency.

Unless Cushing’s or Addison’s disease are suspected, people usually don’t have tests for this hormone, especially if they are not exhibiting any symptoms that would suggest high or low levels. There are some studies regarding the merits of looking at these hormone levels if a person has significantly reduced bone density. Sometimes people do produce the hormone in larger amounts. Many pregnant women have higher levels, and of course illness and high stress can boost production.

Due to the fact that this corticosteroid hormone may be produced in unhealthy amounts when individuals are under a great deal of stress, it makes sense to try to reduce stress. Learning to relax through a variety of methods, avoiding high stress situations when possible, and even getting some therapy can potentially help people to be less anxious. Getting exercise on a regular basis may also help reduce levels, provided these levels are not abnormally high due to malfunction of the adrenal gland.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By mrst53 — On Sep 13, 2012

No wonder my PTSD husband and I have large stomachs. Just can't stay away from the junk food.

By mendocino — On May 12, 2009

Cortisol is secreted during stressful times and it tends to increase the desire for fatty foods. On top of that with the "help" of cortisol the fat is directed primarily toward the midsection.

By matthew11 — On Feb 11, 2009

are men susceptible to high cortisol levels?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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