How Cortisol and Stress Impact Other Hormones

Feb 12, 2024
stressed woman looking at computer and to-do list

Stress is something that affects all of us. In today's world most of us find ourselves juggling multiple responsibilities, leading to heightened stress levels and, consequently, burnout. While stress is a natural response to life's challenges, prolonged exposure can wreak havoc on the delicate balance of hormones in the body, with cortisol playing a central role. In this overview, we will delve into the intricacies of cortisol, exploring its impact on and relationship with other hormones, and providing actionable insights for you to seeking hormonal harmony and resilience against stress.

I. The Cortisol Conundrum:

Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone" for good reason. Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol plays a crucial role in the body's fight-or-flight response. When faced with a perceived threat, cortisol levels spike, preparing the body for quick action. However, in the modern world, chronic stressors can keep cortisol levels elevated, leading to a range of health issues. Read a more in-depth post about cortisol by clicking HERE.

A. Cortisol's Role in the Body:

  1. Energy Regulation:

    • Cortisol helps regulate energy by mobilizing glucose from the liver into the bloodstream, providing quick fuel for the body's response to stress.
  2. Immune Function:

    • While cortisol is essential for short-term immune responses, prolonged elevation can suppress the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.
  3. Inflammation Control:

    • Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties, playing a role in managing inflammation. However, chronic elevation can lead to a state of systemic inflammation, contributing to various health problems.

II. Cortisol's Dance with Other Hormones:

A. Thyroid Hormones:

  1. Impact on Thyroid Function:

    • Thyroid function is usually down-regulated during stressful conditions. Elevated cortisol levels can interfere with the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to its active form (T3), potentially leading to symptoms of hypothyroidism.
    • Both T3 and T4 levels decrease with stress.
    • Stress inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) secretion through the action of cortisol on the central nervous system. 
    • Stress can also impacted hyperthyroidism (increased thyroid function). When stress hormones are elevated, they affect the immune system, potentially leading to autoimmunity. Graves' disease, the autoimmune form of hyperthyroidism, occurs when the immune system creates a protein that binds to TSH receptors and overstimulates thyroid hormone production. One common symptom of Graves' disease is increased anxiety and irritability. 
  2. Metabolic Rate and Weight Management:

    • The interplay between cortisol and thyroid hormones influences metabolic rate and can contribute to weight management challenges in individuals dealing with chronic stress.
    • Our thyroid is our metabolic power house. We need it to function properly to maintain a healthy metabolic rate! 

B. Sex Hormones - estrogen, progesterone and testosterone:

  • Cortisol "Steal"

    • In functional medicine, there is a term called the cortisol steal
      • Cholesterol turns in to pregnenolone which then turns into progesterone or 17OH-Pregnenolone. 
      • From progesterone, things can either turn into cortisol or the precursor to testosterone (which is the precursor to estrogen).
      • When you are stressed and creating cortisol, you can't go down the testosterone pathway. This means when you are stressed, you can have lower levels of testosterone and estrogen. 
      • Since your body is making cortisol, it also uses up your progesterone meaning you may have lower levels of progesterone. 
    • Low testosterone signs:
      • low libido, low energy, loss of muscle strength and tone, depression/anxiety, thinning hair
    • Low estrogen signs:
      • insomnia, night sweats, depression/anxiety, brain fog, menstrual regularity
    • Low progesterone signs:
      • mood swings, low libido, menstrual irregularities 



C. Insulin and Blood Sugar Regulation:

  1. Insulin Resistance:

    • Cortisol's role in regulating blood sugar can contribute to insulin resistance when stress is chronic, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. 
    • Cortisol inhibits insulin secretion and stimulates blood sugar formation from the liver. 
  2. Cravings and Emotional Eating:

    • Cortisol can influence food preferences and cravings, particularly for sugary and high-fat foods, contributing to emotional eating habits and weight gain. Check out this post for more info! 

III. Strategies for Hormonal Harmony:

A. Stress Management Techniques:

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation:

    • Incorporating mindfulness practices and meditation into daily routines can help regulate cortisol levels and promote a sense of calm. Need a few ideas on how to get started- Check out this video!
  2. Regular Exercise:

    • Engaging in regular physical activity is a natural way to lower cortisol levels, boost mood, and improve overall well-being. Make sure to choose exercise that helps lower cortisol, like lower intensity workouts. Read more here.

B. Balanced Nutrition:

  1. Anti-Inflammatory Diet:

    • Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet rich in whole foods, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids can help mitigate the impact of cortisol on inflammation.
  2. Blood Sugar Regulation:

    • Choosing complex carbohydrates and incorporating protein and healthy fats into meals can help stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing spikes that trigger cortisol release.

C. Adequate Sleep:

  1. Importance of Sleep Hygiene:

    • Establishing a consistent sleep routine and creating a conducive sleep environment are crucial for optimizing cortisol levels and overall hormonal balance. Read about how to star getting a good night sleep here!
  2. Cortisol and Circadian Rhythms:

    • Understanding the body's natural circadian rhythms can aid in optimizing cortisol secretion, with higher levels in the morning for energy and lower levels in the evening to support restful sleep.

IV. Seeking Professional Guidance:

A. Hormone Testing:

  1. Comprehensive Hormone Panels:

    • Women experiencing persistent stress and burnout may benefit from comprehensive hormone testing to assess cortisol levels along with other key hormones. 
  2. Interpreting Results:

    • Consulting with a healthcare professional, such as an endocrinologist or a functional medicine practitioner, can provide valuable insights into hormone imbalances and guide personalized treatment plans. If this is something you're interested in, don't hesitate to contact me! Click here ❤️

B. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT):

  1. Considerations for HRT:

    • In certain cases, hormone replacement therapy may be recommended to restore hormonal balance. However, it's crucial to weigh the potential benefits and risks under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
  2. Holistic Approaches:

    • Integrating holistic approaches, such as lifestyle modifications, stress management, and nutritional interventions, alongside conventional treatments can offer a comprehensive approach to hormonal health.


Grappling with stress and burnout, understanding the intricate dance of hormones, particularly cortisol, is pivotal to reclaiming hormonal harmony. By implementing stress management techniques, adopting a balanced lifestyle, and seeking professional guidance when needed, you can empower yourself to navigate the challenges of modern life while preserving your well-being. Remember, it's never too late to prioritize self-care and embark on a journey towards hormonal balance and resilience.

Talk soon! 



Helmreich, D.L., Parfitt, D.B., Lu, X.-Y. ., et al. (2005). Relation between the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Thyroid (HPT) Axis and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis during Repeated Stress. Neuroendocrinology, 81(3), 183–192.

Holtorf, K. (2014). Peripheral Thyroid Hormone Conversion and Its Impact on TSH and Metabolic Activity. Journal of Restorative Medicine, 3(1), 30–52.

Kamba A, Daimon M, Murakami H, Otaka H, Matsuki K, Sato E, Tanabe J, Takayasu S, Matsuhashi Y, Yanagimachi M, Terui K, Kageyama K, Tokuda I, Takahashi I, Nakaji S. Association between Higher Serum Cortisol Levels and Decreased Insulin Secretion in a General Population. PLoS One. 2016 Nov 18;11(11):e0166077. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166077. PMID: 27861636; PMCID: PMC5115704.

Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jan;15(1):18-22. doi: 10.4103/2230-8210.77573. PMID: 21584161; PMCID: PMC3079864. 

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