What Is Cortisol?

Jan 08, 2024
happy woman on beach and the word cortisol

Hi, and welcome back! As promised last week, today we are going to talk more about our primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol has been given a bit of a bad reputation recently. Have you seen the social posts on the effects of having high cortisol levels? At least in my world, they are everywhere... and I've even posted a few

It's true though, a lot of us do have elevated levels of cortisol. Most of which can be traced back to our lifestyle- lack of sleep (guilty!), eating too much sugar (thank goodness the holidays are over), too much stress (did you miss the last post on stress? Read it here), and lack of appropriate movement.

Today we are going to talk more about cortisol itself and take a look at its important role in the body - and why sometimes it can be too much of a good thing! 

What is Cortisol?

Let's start with the basics.

Cortisol often gets a bad rap as the "stress hormone," but it's so much more than that.

Produced by your adrenal glands, cortisol plays a crucial role in your body's daily rhythm, influencing everything from your sleep-wake cycle to your metabolism. While cortisol surges during times of stress, it's not the villain it's often made out to be—instead, it's a key player in maintaining equilibrium.

Cortisol's Daily Dance:

Throughout the day, cortisol levels fluctuate in a pattern known as the circadian rhythm. This rhythm helps regulate your energy levels, ensuring you're alert and ready to tackle the day in the morning and winding down in the evening for restful sleep.

The Impact of Chronic Stress:

The trouble arises when stress becomes chronic, causing cortisol to stay elevated for prolonged periods. This chronic elevation can lead to a cascade of issues, contributing to hormone imbalances that many women 30+ experience.

 What Does Cortisol Do?

Cortisol has a number of different roles in the body, but one of its primary roles is the stimulation of gluconeogenesis, or the formation of glucose (sugar) from amino acids (protein) or free fatty acids (fats) in the liver. Cortisol also creates an elevation of blood sugar levels and inhibits the uptake of sugar by cells, enabling the body to combat "stressors" by making sure we have enough fuel.

Chronic exposure to excess cortisol can deplete protein stores in muscle, bone, connective tissue, and skin (hello premature aging and muscle weakness!). Cortisol also promotes gastric secretion in the stomach and intestines (IBS anyone?). I've put together a table below on the different physiological effects of cortisol, so make sure to keep scrolling. 

Cortisol also significantly impacts our immune system. Elevated levels of cortisol may decrease innate immunity (your natural defense system) and increase autoimmune responses. This may lead to you getting every cold that goes around or possibly developing an autoimmune condition like hypothyroidism. 


Functions Affected

Physiological Effects

Carbohydrate and lipid metabolism

Promotes gluconeogenesis in liver, enhances gluconeogenic response to other hormones, promotes lipolysis in adipose tissue

Protein metabolism

Increases protein synthesis in liver and decreases protein synthesis in muscle, lymphoid tissue, adipose tissue, skin and bone

Lipid metabolism

Lipolysis in extremities and lipogenesis in face and trunk - leading to central obesity

Immune effects

Suppression of innate and increase of adaptive immunity. Chronic stress can induce proinflammatory activities and influence onset or course of infections and autoimmune, allergic and neoplastic diseases

Digestive function

Promotes gastric secretion

Urinary function

Enhances excretion of calcium

Connective tissue function

Decreases proliferation of fibroblasts leading to delayed wound healing

Bone function

Decreases bone formation


The effects of elevated cortisol levels on physical and mental health.

Chronic elevation of cortisol can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.

Cortisol has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and binds to specific intracellular receptors in the brain in regions implicated in cognitive function (Ouanes & Popp, 2019). Because of this, HPA axis dysfunction and chronically elevated cortisol levels have been associated with increased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Ouanes & Popp, 2019).

High cortisol levels have also been linked to decreased volume in several brain regions involved in cognitive functions and hippocampal atrophy (Ouanes & Popp, 2019). This means worsening memory, brain fog and just general mental decline- No good!  

As discussed, one of cortisol’s main functions is gluconeogenesis. Chronic elevation of blood glucose levels can contribute to insulin resistance and metabolic disorders. Lipolysis (break down of fatty tissue) and creation of central obesity also contributes to a pro-inflammatory state and ongoing metabolic issues.

These metabolic imbalances can lead to things like:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • hypertension
  • high cholesterol
  • weight gain
  • difficulty with weight loss. 

Signs and Symptoms of Cortisol Imbalance

  1. Persistent Fatigue: Feeling tired, even after a full night's sleep? Elevated cortisol levels might be disrupting your body's ability to recharge.

  2. Mood Swings and Anxiety: Cortisol and mood are closely connected. If you find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster, cortisol could be a contributing factor.

  3. Weight Gain, Especially Around the Midsection: Cortisol loves to hang out in the abdominal region, leading to that notorious belly fat that seems resistant to traditional weight-loss efforts.

  4. Sleep Disturbances: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Cortisol might be throwing off your natural sleep-wake cycle.

How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

Lifestyle Strategies for Cortisol Harmony: let's explore lifestyle strategies that can work synergistically with nutrition to promote cortisol balance:

  1. Mindful Movement: Engage in activities you love, whether it's a brisk walk, yoga, or dancing in your living room. Physical activity is a powerful stress-buster.

  2. Prioritize Restorative Sleep: Create a bedtime routine that signals to your body it's time to wind down. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night to support cortisol's natural rhythm.

  3. Stress-Reducing Practices: Incorporate stress-reducing practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness into your daily routine. These practices can help reset cortisol levels and promote relaxation.

  4. Connect and Laugh: Nurture your social connections and find moments of joy. Laughter is a fantastic way to reduce stress and elevate your mood.

  5. Start Your Day Right: Kickstart your morning with a balanced breakfast. Include protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates to provide sustained energy and keep cortisol in check.

  6. Omega-3 Rich Foods: Incorporate foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, to support a healthy inflammatory response and adrenal function.

  7. Caffeine Awareness: While that morning cup of coffee can be delightful, excessive caffeine intake can contribute to cortisol spikes. Consider moderating your caffeine consumption and explore alternative beverages like herbal teas.

  8. Balancing Blood Sugar: Opt for whole, nutrient-dense foods that help stabilize blood sugar levels. Think colorful vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to keep cortisol fluctuations at bay.

  9. Hydration and Herbal Teas: Stay well-hydrated and experiment with calming herbal teas like chamomile or peppermint. Proper hydration supports your body's stress response.

We will get into these in more detail over the next few weeks, so make sure to sign up for our newsletter. That way you always know when a new post is coming out! 


Cortisol often gets a bad rap as the "stress hormone," but it's so much more than that. Cortisol plays a crucial role in your body's daily rhythm, influencing everything from your sleep-wake cycle to your metabolism. It's a key player in maintaining equilibrium. However, when you have chronic elevations of cortisol you can develop metabolic and sleep disorders. You can have persistent fatigue, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain and difficulty with weight loss as symptoms of cortisol imbalance. 


Ouanes S, Popp J. High Cortisol and the Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease: A Review of the Literature. Front Aging Neurosci. 2019 Mar 1;11:43. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2019.00043. PMID: 30881301; PMCID: PMC6405479. 


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