What Is Cortisol and Why Does It Wreak Havoc on the Body?

by Edie Horstman

Cortisol: The 101

Best known for helping fuel the “fight or flight” instinct, cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. Think of it as your instinctual, built-in alarm system. Produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands that sit on top of each kidney, cortisol is typically released in response to events, circumstances and crises, i.e. waking up each morning, exercise and acute stress. Given its importance, its systemic effects play a variety of roles in the body’s effort to carry out certain functions while simultaneously maintaining homeostasis.

When faced with a stressor, a complex hormonal cascade ensues, and the adrenal glands secrete cortisol. Cortisol prepares the body by releasing glucose, supplying an immediate source of energy to the body’s main muscle groups. At the same time, cortisol inhibits insulin production, allowing glucose to be used instantly (instead of being stored for later use). Additionally, cortisol narrows the arteries while epinephrine — also known as adrenaline — increases heart rate. Once the situation is resolved, hormones return to normal.

What Happens When Cortisol Is High?

While cortisol is needed to regulate a wide range of processes throughout the body — including metabolism and immune response — prolonged, continuous release of cortisol can lead to unwanted consequences. High cortisol can cause a lack of sex drive, irregular/absent menstrual cycles in women, chronic diseases (i.e. osteoporosis and blood sugar imbalance), weight gain, disrupted sleep patterns and impaired brain function. In rare cases, it can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Chronic inflammation caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and stress keep cortisol levels soaring, ultimately wreaking havoc on the immune system.

For example, cortisol directly correlates to human nutrition. Advantageously, it regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat or protein) the body needs. However, when chronically elevated, cortisol can have adverse effects on weight. First, it increases appetite, thus signaling the body to shift metabolism to store fat. Second, it releases an abundance of glucose. The body remains in a general insulin-resistant state when cortisol levels are chronically elevated. Over time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in the blood remain high, the cells don’t receive the sugar they need and the cycle continues.

What Happens When Cortisol is Low?

Alternatively, when cortisol is too low, energy is absent, and going about day-to-day life may feel impossible. Debilitating symptoms of low cortisol include low blood pressure, dizziness when quickly standing up, chronic anxiety, unstable blood sugar, salt cravings and extreme fatigue. In essence, too little cortisol may be due to a problem in the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland (Addison's disease). Typically, the onset of symptoms is very gradual. Assessment by an endocrinologist is recommended.

Natural Tips to Balance Cortisol

To find the sweet spot — where cortisol is neither too high nor too low — there is an array of lifestyle, diet and relaxation recommendations.

1. Make Sleep a Priority
Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol. To optimize sleep, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening, limit exposure to bright lights at night and create a meditation routine before bed.

2. Exercise
Incorporate mild-to-moderate exercise, but avoid grueling, long workouts. Too much exercise can cause negative effects on cortisol.

3. Practice Mindfulness
Third, dive into mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques — i.e. slow breathing and yoga — to help lower cortisol response.

4. Relax
Develop enjoyable and relaxing hobbies, such as gardening and painting. Happiness promotes feelings of well-being, which translates to lower cortisol.

5. Cultivate Supportive Relationships and Friendships
Affectionate interaction has been shown to benefit heart rate and blood pressure.

6. Make Space for Spiritual Growth
Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors, such as illness.

7. Eat Healthy Foods
Because processed sugar intake is one of the classic triggers of cortisol release, eating a variety of whole foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, organic meat, etc.) is important. Specifically, aim to include black and green tea, probiotics and prebiotics — as well as plenty of water as dehydration increases cortisol.

Edie Horstman is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, wellness blogger, and freelance writer. She works with health-focused brands, co-creating content in the digital marketing space. She lives in Denver, Colorado.