Health Effects of Cortisol in the Body

By Val Silver

Are the health effects of cortisol on the body all bad? This so-called stress hormone often gets a bad rap. It is  rightly associated with a multitude of health related problems brought on by chronic stress and the body's response to it. But that is only part the story. The amount of cortisol circulating in your system at a given time, and how often, determines whether it is helping or harming your health overall.

What is Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, meaning it is a steroid that acts as a hormone. A steroid is an organic compound. Hormones are signalling molecules produced by the glands. 

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal cortex part of the adrenal glands. It is classified as a glucocorticoid, a hormone that plays a role in glucose, or blood sugar, metabolism. It also helps metabolize fats, protein, and carbohydrates and keeps the immune system in check.

effects of cortisol, adrenal kidney diagram

Under normal conditions cortisol is always present in the body in varying amounts. Levels are generally highest in the morning and lowest a few hours after going to sleep. 

When a threat, or distress trigger is perceived, the adrenal glands are signaled by the pituitary gland to elevate levels for fright or fight.  This is why cortisol is often called the stress hormone. When this happens too often, as is now common given our modern lifestyles, cortisol becomes a major contributor to weight gain and an array of health problems.

effects of cortisol, cortisol moleculecortisol molecule

Positive Effects of Cortisol

There are several positive effects of cortisol. It has many important, helpful functions in the body when its normal rhythms can be maintained as nature intended.

  • It helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels. 
  • It aids fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism.
  • When you get stressed, cortisol levels spike to give you the energy and strength you need to fight or flee. It's a survival mechanism.
  • It suppresses the onset of acute inflammation.

Have you ever noticed that you feel little if any pain during or shortly after an accident or fight? This is because cortisol keeps inflammation in check during periods of distress. Then when you relax, the pain intensifies as stress hormone levels normalize. DHEA hormone initiates repair and the inflammatory process begins.

Short occasional bursts of high cortisol levels are expected and easily handled by the body as part of the stress response. It only becomes damaging when levels stay elevated due to malfunction or chronic stress. This is common in today's world as we deal with financial worries, environmental toxins, obesity, relationship troubles and more.

Negative Effects of High Cortisol Levels

When the adrenals receive the signal that you are under stress, cortisol levels rise.

High cortisol levels are about survival from a predator or other danger. All functions needed to help you escape danger, real or perceived, are heightened. All physical and mental functions not necessary for getting you through the crisis are suppressed. This may not have immediate health ramifications, but if you are chronically in fight-flight or freeze mode, stress can seriously affect your health over time. Cortisol is not entirely responsible for these ill effects, but it does play a major role.

  • Blood pressure rises as vessels constrict.
  • Gastric acid production increases in the stomach.
  • Insulin cannot do its job of regulating blood sugar.
  • Blood sugar levels rise. 
  • You crave carbohydrates and more food.
  • The immune system is suppressed.
  • The release of the DHEA hormone is curtailed.

One of the functions of cortisol is to reduce inflammation, an initial part of healing injuries. Inhibiting this process allows body tissues to continue receiving their full blood supply. Healing is not a priority when in flight-fright.  

In order to inhibit inflammation, cortisol suppresses the immune system. That is good news when you need to run from a predator, but bad news when you need to fight off a microbe. Even a twenty minute episode of stress has been shown to reduce natural killer cell activity, our primary defense system, for up to three days.

Adrenaline and cortisol work together during stressful times to create memories of emotional events. You've probably experienced an event that felt so emotionally charged that it seems forever burned into your memory as if it just happened. This is called a flash bulb memory and probably serves as a protective device - a powerful reminder of what you want to avoid. 

Long-term Effects of Elevated Cortisol

The detrimental effects of high cortisol levels in the body become apparent as a result of repeated and prolonged dis-stress. 

Long-term exposure to stress hormones damages and reduces the number of cells in the hippocampus, the brain's primary memory center. This damage results in memory loss and impaired learning.

stress effects on telomeres

Cells throughout your body fall victim to prolonged high cortisol levels. Telomeres, the 'end caps' that protect your cells as they reproduce, shorten. The shorter your end caps, the faster your cells and immune system age and become susceptible to damage. 

Another major negative effect of cortisol is that it inhibits collagen formation. Collagen is a molecule that makes connective tissue. It's vital for structural support and is found in muscles, tendons and joints, as well as throughout the entire body.

Stress studies done on rats show that collagen loss in the skin was ten times greater than in any other tissue. Remember that during stress the body prioritizes what is important for fight or flight. Wrinkle-free, young looking skin is not one of those priorities.

According to research at Carnegie Mellon University, your body loses its ability to regulate its inflammatory responses as immune cells become less sensitive to regulating hormonal signals.  This creates health damaging chronic inflammation in your body.

Inflammation along with increased calorie intake, blood sugar and insulin levels caused by elevated cortisol is a contributor to weight gain and excess belly fat.

Eventually, if chronic stress is not curtailed, the adrenal glands can become exhausted fail to work properly, resulting in extreme fatigue and other symptoms.

DHEA Cortisol Effects

Another problem with continually maintaining high cortisol levels is its effects on DHEA, another vital hormone produced by the adrenal glands.

When the adrenal glands release stress hormones, they do not release DHEA, which is responsible for cell repair. The adrenals are either making one of these hormones or the other at any given moment.

When DHEA hormone levels are low, the body does not have the biological resources to repair itself. The body can't function properly and is more vulnerable to disease. DHEA also protects us from stress and the effects of cortisol. It slows aging, strengthens the immune system and improves mood.

If you are concerned about being healthy, create conditions that favor the proper dhea-cortisol ratio by keeping distress at bay.

It takes about thirty minutes after a stressful event for the body to break down cortisol molecules. They are reassembled into the necessary building blocks for DHEA. If you keep thinking stress response triggering thoughts, you rob your body of the opportunity for healing and repair.

Summary of Stress, Cortisol and DHEA

A little stress now and again is not a bad thing. It provides an energy boost to help you get things done and alerts you to situations that need healing and attention. It is chronic distress that causes the negative health effects of cortisol. It raises cortisol and keeps it elevated to unhealthy levels. Stress also inhibits DHEA production. The combination of elevated cortisol and low DHEA compromises your health, reduces your body's ability to heal and repair, and causes you to age faster.

Do not kid yourself into thinking you can compartmentalize stress and keep it in your head. The brain communicates to the body with lightning speed. The entire body gets the message to activate the stress response.

Understanding how the stress response works, and how you can reduce the harmful effects of stress on cortisol levels will help you enjoy a healthier life.

Related Pages

Effects of Cortisol page updated 01/2021


For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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