What is Cortisol and How it functions?

Cortisol is the main stress hormone. Generally it is considered an antagonist in the body. But every villain has some heroic skills. Cortisol is much more than a mere free flowing hormone in the body. It affects many functions positively and negatively both.

Here we go with the detailed discussion about the cortisol.

What is Cortisol?

“Cortisol is like fireplace at your home. Higher the flames, dangerous it becomes”

Cortisol is the steroid hormone made in adrenal glands. When the cortisol level in blood is low, the Hypothalamus and Pituitary gland recognizes it and send signals to Adrenal, which then secrets Cortisol Hormone. Most cells have the cortisol receptors which induce some positive and negative both functions.

Digging deeper:

Cortisol is the steroid Hormone under the Glucocorticoid class of hormones. This is mainly produced by the Zona Fasciculata of the Adrenal Cortex and by other tissues in limited quantity. The hormone is secreted with the diurnal cycle and also in response to sugar and low sugar concentration in blood. 

Some of the side effects of High and Low Cortisol
  • Cortisol elevates the blood sugar level through Gluconeogenesis (converting the glucose from non-carb materials).
  • Cortisol suppresses the immune system.
  • Cortisol aids in the fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism

What Cortisol does to your body?

Roughly, Cortisol hormone:

  • Manages the use of cabs, fats, and proteins in the body.
  • Keeps the immune responses such as inflammation down.
  • Regulates the blood pressure.
  • Spikes the blood sugar level.
  • Controls the sleep and wake cycle.
  • Boosts energy.

Levels of Cortisol

High level of Cortisol:

High level of stress hormone Cortisol leads to the Cushing syndrome where the individual experiences weight gain in the face, chest, and abdomen areas whereas arms and legs stay slender.  Also, it causes high BP, change in skin color, and mood swings.

Women can experience the change in libido and menstrual cycle.

Low level of stress hormone Cortisol:

A low level can cause primary adrenal insufficiency which can damage the adrenal glands. The symptoms can be slow and gradual but can go serious. An individual may experience muscle loss, weight loss, and mood swings.

Cortisol responses:

Metabolic responses:

Glucose Metabolism: High level of Stress contributes to the dangerous condition called Hyperglycemia, through Gluconeogenesis. It decreases the translocation of glucose transporters to receptor cells. Also, Cortisol stimulates glycogenesis in the liver, which stores glucose in the most accessible form. Later this condition leads to conditions such as Diabetes.

Bone formation: High-stress hormone cortisol shows symptoms on your bone formation. The high level of Cortisol secretion reduces bone formation which leads to progressive bone disease, known as osteoporosis.

Amino acid: Cortisol inhibits the collagen formation, decreases the amino acid uptake by muscles, and protein synthesis which raises the level of free amino acids in the serum.

Immune Response:

Imbalanced Stress hormone Cortisol reduces the immune response of your body. It warns for the loss that cortisol does to your body. The high level of Cortisol puts you in danger of seasonal flu and many more dangerous conditions. Also, this is used to treat the conditions rising from the overactivity of B-cell-mediated antibody response, such as inflammation in Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Electrolyte Imbalancing:

Cortisol increases the Glomerular Filtration Rate and renal plasma flow from kidneys. This increases the excretion of potassium from body and retention of sodium and water.

Sodium:  Cortisol increases the absorption of sodium in body which is not a good symptom when cortisol is high.

Potassium: For more absorption of sodium, cells need to move potassium out of the cells. For moving potassium out, cortisol moves an equal number of sodium ions into cells.

High gastric acid secretion: Cortisol induces the high level of gastric acid secretion, which results into the uneasy conditions such as acid reflux and ulcer.

Stress and memory:

Cortisol and Adrenaline work together to make the flash memories. It is worst among all side effects of cortisol. Both high and low levels of cortisol decrease the capacity to memorize things. Also, a High level of cortisol decreases the skills and performance level.

When to worry?

If you feel any of the above signs or conditions of high cortisol, you must consult a doctor. Remember, the level of stress hormone cortisol rises and drops frequently. Additionally, the imbalance of cortisol hormone affects your body directly. But still, if you feel that your cortisol level is varying, you must give a visit to your doctor to prevent the side effects of increased cortisol.


  • Adrenal gland: A triangle-shaped organ located on the top of both kidneys.
  • Gluconeogenesis: Break down of noncarbohydrate for glucose formation.
  • Glucocorticoid: also known as Glucocorticosteroid (Glucose + Cortex + Steroid) are the class of corticosteroids which are a class of corticosteroids. It usually reduces certain aspects of the immune system.
  • Glycogenesis: Glycogen synthesis in the liver aka breakdown of glycogen for the formation of glucose.