What is Cortisol?

CortisolCortisol is often called the "stress hormone" because of its connection to the stress response, however, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress. Understanding cortisol and its affect on the body will help you balance your hormones and achieve good health.

Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands. Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a combination glands often referred to as the HPA axis.

What does cortisol do?

Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

Problems associated with high cortisol levels

Sometimes tumors on the pituitary or adrenal glands can contribute to a condition known as Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by high levels of cortisol in the blood. Individuals with Cushing syndrome will experience rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen, and chest. Often doctors will notice this because of the individual's slender arms and legs compared to the heavy weight in the core of the body. Cushing syndrome also causes a flushed face, high blood pressure, and changes in the skin. Osteoporosis and mood swings are also a factor considered with Cushing disease.

High cortisol levels can also contribute to changes in a woman's libido and menstrual cycle, even without the presence of Cushing disease. Anxiety and depression may also be linked to high cortisol levels.

The effects of low cortisol levels

Low cortisol levels can cause a condition known as primary adrenal insufficiency or Addison disease. While rare, primary adrenal insufficiency is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the adrenal glands. Symptoms may start slowly, but they can be quite serious. Patients with primary adrenal insufficiency can experience fatigue, muscle loss, weight loss, mood swings, and changes to the skin.

Questions to ask your doctor

If you suspect that your cortisol levels are not where they should be, the first step to getting help is to talk to your doctor. Your doctor can order a number of tests to determine if you have low or high cortisol levels. Questions to ask your doctor include:

  • How do cortisol levels vary throughout the day?
  • What underlying conditions could be affecting my cortisol levels?
  • How can I manage cortisol levels to regain my health?
  • What testing is needed to determine the cause of my symptoms?