The link between cortisol and stress

by Ally Cohen
Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, is a fundamental player in our body's response to stress. Understanding the intricate relationship between cortisol levels and stress is crucial for comprehending its impact on our overall well-being.
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Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, is a fundamental player in our body's response to stress. Understanding the intricate relationship between cortisol levels and stress is crucial for comprehending its impact on our overall well-being. By Ally Cohen

Let’s explore this fascinating connection by looking at the symptoms, impact and effective management strategies for maintaining a healthy balance.

Demystifying cortisol

  • Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands’ cortex, with its effects reaching almost every organ system due to the widespread presence of cortisol receptors in cells.
  • Its multifaceted functions include regulating the body’s stress response mechanisms, managing metabolism by breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, suppressing inflammation, influencing blood pressure levels, enhancing blood glucose availability in the brain, and orchestrating the sleep-wake cycle.

Understanding the dynamics

  1. Alarm reaction stage:

    • In response to sudden stress, the body initiates the fight-or-flight response, orchestrated by the brain’s amygdala.
    • The amygdala triggers the hypothalamus, which, in turn, activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
    • This prompts the adrenal glands to release cortisol, resulting in a surge in cortisol levels to cope with the stressor.
  2. Under extreme stress:

    • Research conducted in 2018 demonstrated that extreme stress could lead to a substantial nine-fold increase in cortisol levels compared to periods of relaxation.

Recognising symptoms of high cortisol

  • Weight gain: Particularly noticeable around the abdomen, leading to a rounded appearance.
  • Fatty deposits: Accumulation of fat around the shoulder blades, giving a characteristic humpback appearance.
  • Hypertension: Manifested by persistently elevated blood pressure readings.
  • Diabetes: Marked by elevated blood sugar levels due to cortisol’s role in promoting gluconeogenesis.
  • Excessive hair growth (Hirsutism): Commonly observed in individuals assigned female at birth due to hormonal imbalances.
  • Purple stretch marks: Wide and noticeable stretch marks that develop on the abdomen, thighs, and breasts.
  • Muscle weakness: Particularly evident in the upper arms and thighs, affecting mobility and strength.
  • High blood sugar: Caused by increased glucagon production and reduced insulin sensitivity.
  • Osteoporosis: Resulting from cortisol-induced bone mineral density loss, increasing the risk of fractures.

Effective strategies

  1. Stress management techniques:

    • Incorporate relaxation practices such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness sessions into your daily routine.
    • Engage in regular physical activity, which acts as a natural stress reliever and mood booster.
    • Prioritise adequate and restful sleep, aiming for 7-9 hours per night.
    • Adopt a balanced diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables to support overall health.
  2. Seeking support:

    • Foster open communication with friends, family, or a qualified therapist to express and address stressors proactively.
    • Join support groups or online communities to connect with others facing similar challenges and share coping strategies.
  3. Lifestyle adjustments:

    • Limit the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, as they can exacerbate stress and anxiety.
    • Allocate time for self-care activities that promote relaxation and rejuvenation, such as reading, gardening, or taking a soothing bath.
    • Engage in hobbies or recreational pursuits that bring joy and fulfilment, helping to alleviate stress and promote mental well-being.

By actively managing stress levels and adopting healthy lifestyle habits, you can positively influence cortisol dynamics and maintain optimal health and well-being. Remember to prioritise self-care and seek professional guidance if needed to navigate stressors effectively. Please also visit your health professional for lab tests. 

Sources and references:

(1) Cortisol and stress: The relationship explained – Medical News Today

(2) Cortisol: What It Is, Function, Symptoms & Levels – Cleveland Clinic 

(3) Chronic stress puts your health at risk – Mayo Clinic


*Disclaimer: The insights provided in this article are based on credible sources and expert opinions. For personalised advice and healthcare recommendations, it’s advisable to consult with qualified healthcare professionals.¹²³

Also read: 10 signs your stress levels are dangerously high

What your stress levels like? Tell us from 1-10 (1 being low and 10 being high) in comments! 

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