The Cortisol Connection: How Stress Affects Your Whole Body

Cortisol, also called hydrocortisone, is like a built-in alarm system for your body and it works with certain parts of your brain to control your:

  • Mood
  • Motivation
  • Fear

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It is made by your adrenal glands, the triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys. It plays an important part in several things your body does such as:

  • Manages how your body uses fats, carbohydrates, and proteins
  • Keeps inflammation low (inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself against harm)
  • Blood pressure regulation,
  • Increases blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Increases energy to help handle stress and restores balance afterward

Why Is Cortisol So Important?

Cortisol is known best for producing the “fight or flight” response which evolved as a way to survive. It made it possible for people to react to what might be a life-threatening situation.  This change in hormones and the physical response forces us to face the threat or flee from it. 

But, cortisol also helps: 

  • Control blood pressure
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Increase the body’s metabolism of glucose (the main source of fuel for your brain)

Small increases in cortisol have some positive effects including:

  • A burst of energy 
  • Increased awareness
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body (self-regulating processes in which your biological systems maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for survival)

What Does Cortisol Do To The Body?

In your brain, your hypothalamus and pituitary gland can sense if your blood contains the correct level of cortisol. If it’s too low, your brain adjusts the number of hormones it produces. Your adrenal glands notice these signals and adjust the amount of cortisol they release.

The cortisol receptors that are in most cells in your body receive and use the hormone in different ways. Since your needs are different from day to day, your cortisol levels can sometimes get out of whack. For example, when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. This might include: 

  • Your digestive system
  • Reproductive system 
  • The immune system
  • Growth processes

Fight Or Flight

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress or fear as part of the body’s fight or flight response. When faced with some type of threat in the environment, your body goes through a series of instant reactions that get you ready to either stay and deal with the problem or escape to safety.

When There’s Too Much Stress And Cortisol

Once the danger or pressure has passed, your cortisol should come down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems should go back to normal. But if you’re under constant stress, cortisol levels stay too high.  Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in your bloodstream can wreck your body’s most important functions and lead to several health problems including:

  • Imbalances in blood sugar
  • Decrease in bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • High blood pressure
  • Defective cognitive abilities ( mental abilities, such as learning, thinking, reasoning, and remembering)
  • Increased fat in the abdomen
  • Lower immunity
  • Slower wound healing
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Cushing syndrome

These adverse effects may also come with their side effects. Increased abdominal fat is linked to a greater number of health problems than fat deposits in other body areas. It also includes an increased risk for:

  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Higher “bad” cholesterol levels
  • Lower “good” cholesterol levels

Cushing Syndrome

Chronic high cortisol or a growth in your adrenal gland or a tumor in the brain’s pituitary gland can trigger your body to produce too much cortisol. This can bring about a condition called Cushing syndrome. Cushing syndrome can lead to: 

  • Rapid weight gain
  • Easy skin bruising
  • Muscle weakness
  • Diabetes, and other health conditions 

What Happens When There’s Not Enough Cortisol?

If your body doesn’t produce enough cortisol, you have a condition called Addison’s disease. The symptoms of Addison’s usually appear gradually over some time. Without treatment, it is a potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms include: 

  • Changes in your skin, such as darkening in skin folds and scars
  • Feeling tired all the time 
  • Muscle weakness that gets worse
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Lack of appetite and weight loss
  • Low blood pressure

If your body isn’t producing enough cortisol, you may be prescribed dexamethasone, hydrocortisone, or prednisone.

How Does Cortisol Affect Other Hormones?

Cortisol And Estrogen

In women, a common way that stress affects their bodies is by causing hormonal imbalances. When high cortisol levels lower estrogen levels, symptoms of hormonal imbalance occur. At other times, the circulating estrogen can also raise the levels of cortisol in the blood causing symptoms of a hormonal imbalance such as:

  • Frequent or heavy periods
  • Missed or stopped periods
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal atrophy/dryness
  • Weight gain
  • Night sweats
  • Skin tags
  • Darkening of the creases in the neck, groin, or under breasts
  • Acne on the upper back, chest, or face
  • Excessive hair growth on the chin or face

Progesterone And Cortisol

When you feel stressed out and tired, your progesterone levels suffer. When cortisol spikes, it blocks progesterone receptors and limits its activity. Symptoms of low progesterone include:

  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Infertility
  • Acne, brittle nails, cracked and dry skin
  • Depression, anxiety, and mood swings
  • Fatigue and foggy thinking
  • Low sex drive
  • Slow metabolism
  • Headaches, migraines
  • Joint pain
  • Allergy symptoms

How Does Cortisol Affect The Thyroid?

Not only does chronic stress have negative effects on your overall health, but it can also affect your thyroid. The adrenal glands, which release cortisol, can handle small amounts of stress well. The effect of stress on the thyroid occurs by slowing your metabolism.

This is another link between stress and weight gain. A fragile balance between stress hormones and cortisol must exist for the proper functioning of the thyroid. If the balance changes, your thyroid symptoms may increase.

Cortisol And Insulin

Insulin resistance and problems balancing blood sugar frequently occur with hypothyroidism. This is because, under stressful conditions, cortisol prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles.

This flood of cortisol inhibits the production of insulin in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, promoting its immediate use.

However, elevated cortisol for the long term consistently makes glucose, causing increased blood sugar levels. But since the main function of cortisol is to obstruct insulin, it makes the cells resistant to insulin. When cortisol levels are constantly elevated it causes the body to remain in an insulin-resistant state. 

The Pancreas

Your pancreas makes pancreatic juices called enzymes which break down sugars, fats, and starches. Your pancreas helps your digestive system by making hormones. When cortisol levels are too high, over time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin. The glucose levels in the blood stay high and the cells can’t get the sugar they need. And the cycle goes on. This effect on insulin can result in:

  • Weight gain
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Problems with fertility

Cortisol And Your Immune System

In short bursts, cortisol can raise your immunity by limiting inflammation. But after some time, your body gets used to having too much cortisol in your blood, opening the door for more inflammation. The right kind of inflammation is important to healing your body. But chronic inflammation is a problem.  Research shows that chronic inflammation is linked to:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Bowel diseases

Does High Cortisol Cause Digestive Issues?

Cortisol affects fat storage and weight gain in people with high-stress levels. High levels of cortisol are linked to overeating, craving high-calorie fatty, and sugary foods. It also causes fat from the circulation and storage deposits to be relocated to the deep internal abdominal area.

In addition, it affects your digestive system by increasing the acid in your stomach, causing: 

  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

9 Tips For Controlling Cortisol Levels

Some people experience, a bigger spike in cortisol than others when they feel stressed. It’s possible to lessen the amount of cortisol you secrete in response to stressful experiences. To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, your relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response happens. You can learn to relax your body with stress management methods and make lifestyle changes to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. These tips may help maintain healthy cortisol levels:

  • Breathing exercises (deep breathing–not too fast or too slow)
  • Exercise
  • Guided imagery (This is a way of focusing your imagination to create calm, peaceful images in your mind, providing a “mental escape”)
  • Journaling
  • Listen to music
  • Sex
  • Yoga
  • Meditation (focus on your breathing, relax your body, and don’t allow your thoughts to stray back to the stressful events)

Challenges to Cortisol Control

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to keep cortisol levels regulated. Some possible issues are:

  • The secretion of cortisol varies among people. Individuals are wired biologically to react differently to stress where one person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than someone else in the same situation. Furthermore, this tendency can change at different times during a person’s life. Research has shown that people who secrete more cortisol in response to stress tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates.
  • Individuals with depression might also have higher levels of cortisol in their blood. The techniques of stress management previously mentioned can help lower these levels and maybe be a helpful coping tool for people who are living with symptoms of depression.

How To Reset The Cortisol Connection In Your Body

Initial Testing

Blood tests are the most common way to measure cortisol. But a cortisol test may also measure the level of cortisol in your urine or saliva. If your levels are too high or too low, it might mean you have a disorder of your adrenal glands which can be serious if not treated. They include:

  • Cushing syndrome  
  • Addison’s disease 
  • Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors

If your tests aren’t normal, your health care provider will probably order more tests such as CT,  MRI, and more blood and urine tests.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

HRT has been reported to increase, decrease, or not change cortisol levels. One study reported an increase in cortisol levels after 12 weeks. While another study showed that long-term use of  HRT decreased morning-free cortisol levels compared to post-menopausal women who weren’t using HRT. Still, a third study found HRT significantly reduced total cortisol after 12 months of treatment. 

Biological Not Chronological Age

Hormone imbalances are not just a result of your age. A body dealing with chronic stress and high cortisol levels has a higher biological age and may need some support. Combining HRT with natural methods to lower cortisol levels may lead to a reduction of the effects of stress that have aged you beyond your years. 

At Androgenix Advanced Health and Wellness Center, we are experienced in treatment with bioidentical hormone replacement therapy which is different from synthetic, or lab-produced, hormones. We have successfully treated many men and women with our combined treatment methods. The more you struggle with this, the more stressed you become. Why wait? Contact us today. 


*Unless otherwise stated, individual results may vary depending on many factors not all patients “feel” or achieve the same results.