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Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid) hormone produced by the zona fasciculate (of adrenal glands). This hormone can often be recovered from blood, saliva, or urine samples from the human body.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s produced by your body. It’s essential for your health, but too much cortisol can cause problems, ranging from anxiety to diabetes.

The HPA axis is an intricate, yet robust, neuroendocrine mechanism that mediates the effects of stressors by regulating numerous physiological processes. For example: metabolism, immune responses, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Fact: The HPA axis follows a (naturally repeats every 24 hours) rhythm. Therefore, cortisol levels will be high in the morning and low at night.

The neuroendocrine system is activated as a natural reaction to internal as well as external stress. Stress is often the major trigger to release of cortisol via the HPA axis, and often cortisol is linked with regulation of emotions. There is no relation established between cortisol and emotion regulation so far – we do not know for sure as to whether spikes in cortisol are directly going to impact the emotion regulation balance in the body or cause any disruption/ untoward behavior as a result.

However, there are several findings that indicate the change of level of cortisol in presence and absence of stress.  The most widely studied relation of cortisol is with a negative stressor which contributes to negative affect.

For example, an emotional stressor disguised as an exam or loss of money is accompanied by increase in level of cortisol, activating the fight and flight response in our body. Although, always hand in hand (stressful episode and spike thereafter), the causal relationship is often hard to establish. Many scientists have tried to mimic stressful events in order to check its correlation with cortisol release. However, induced stress as seen in lab settings have not been successful enough to spike cortisol levels as much as we so often see in naturally occurring stressful situations.

Below are some symptoms of high cortisol levels in the body:

  • Weight gain, especially in the face and abdomen region.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Wide, purple stretch marks on the abdominal region.
  • Muscle weakness in the upper arms and thighs.
  • High blood sugar, which may turn into Type 2 diabetes.

You may wonder: how is the feeling of stress different anxiety?

When someone is under stress they may experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, sleep problems or digestive troubles as a result of a stressor in their life.

Anxiety is a reaction to emotions instead of the imminent danger in the environment. It is characterized by persistent, excessive worries that will not go away even in the absence of a stressor. There are different kinds of anxiety disorders such as – generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and other phobia-related disorders.

Both anxiety as well as stress are known to increase the cortisol levels in the human body.

Fact: Melatonin (sleep hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone) are in an opposite relationship; when melatonin is high, cortisol should be low and vice versa. When either of these gets out of balance, our ability to sleep is affected.


Try using this automated, 21 item “Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS-21) questionnaire” to gain insight into your present mental health at –

Adopt these proven techniques to help with daily stressors and thrive to the fullest:

  • Indulge in physical activity- from High intensity interval training (HIIT) to regular walks each morning.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet each day.
  • Perform mindfulness based exercises and meditation.
  • Reach out to family and friends and make social connections.
  • Practice gratitude and journaling regularly.
  • Get enough sleep each night and let your body recuperate.
  • Spend time in nature or listen to soothing music when in leisure.











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