WATCH: What’s the hype about cortisol?

This hormone is frequently mentioned as something that needs to be ‘regulated’ or balanced. Picture: Pexels

This hormone is frequently mentioned as something that needs to be ‘regulated’ or balanced. Picture: Pexels

Published May 23, 2024


In a society that often seems fixated on discovering well-being hacks, you’ve likely encountered discussions about cortisol on social media.

This hormone is frequently mentioned as something that needs to be "regulated" or balanced and is blamed for issues such as irregular sleep, bloating, and breakouts.

However, distinguishing fact from fiction in today’s health and wellness landscape can be challenging. Social media is rife with advice on supplements, lifestyle changes, and dietary choices to regulate cortisol and maintain optimal health.

Yet, balancing cortisol levels is more complex than merely altering your diet and lifestyle. There are specific conditions associated with high and low cortisol levels that require targeted treatment.

Before attempting to regulate your cortisol levels, here’s a comprehensive overview of the so-called "stress hormone" — including whether balancing cortisol is necessary or even feasible.

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What is cortisol exactly?

Cortisol is one of several hormones produced by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located atop each kidney. It plays a role in various body functions, including blood pressure regulation, temperature control, inflammation, and weight management.

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because it prepares the body for fight or flight responses. It raises blood pressure and releases glucose into the bloodstream for energy.

How does the body work to regulate cortisol?

The body regulates hormones, including cortisol, in response to stimuli perceived by the brain as stressful.

The brain releases a hormone called ACTH, which signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol. When the brain detects sufficient cortisol levels in the blood, it stops releasing ACTH.

What causes high cortisol levels?

Increased cortisol levels can result from heightened stress. If the brain frequently or continuously perceives stress and cannot manage it effectively, the body will release cortisol more often.

Stress and anxiety can cause symptoms such as poor sleep, muscle tightness, and irritability — though it’s difficult to say if these symptoms are directly caused by high cortisol levels.

Certain medical conditions, like Cushing's Syndrome, are associated with abnormally high cortisol levels.

What are the symptoms of high cortisol levels?

Some common symptoms of clinically high cortisol levels include:

  • Easy skin bruising
  • Increased fat, particularly on the face and midsection
  • Pink or purple striae/stretch marks
  • High blood pressure
  • Bone loss
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Mood changes

What causes low cortisol levels?

Extremely low cortisol levels are typically linked to Addison’s disease, a condition where the adrenal glands don’t produce enough of the hormone.

What are the symptoms of low cortisol?

Low cortisol levels related to Addison’s disease are usually associated with the following symptoms:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in skin colour (noticeable darkening or bronzing of the skin)

Is it important to balance your cortisol levels?

Persistently elevated cortisol can lead to long-term negative health effects on your blood pressure, immune system, cardiovascular health, and weight.

Balancing cortisol isn’t achieved through medications or supplements but through regulating your sleep, nutrition, and emotional stress.

Sleep: Restful and restorative sleep is crucial for balancing cortisol.

Physical activity: It relieves stress for both the body and the mind.

Emotional stress relief: mindfulness-based activities, such as meditation, spending time in nature, breathwork, and journaling, are beneficial.

Nutrition: Cortisol can affect the gut microbiome due to the brain-gut connection, potentially leading to conditions like IBS. Plant-based diets positively impact the gut microbiome, potentially counteracting cortisol's effects.

IOL Lifestyle