What does the Cortisol Hormone do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2019
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The cortisol hormone regulates a number of functions in the human body. It is one of a group of hormones known as glucocorticoids and is among the most important of these chemical messengers. In addition to playing a role in a number of natural processes, synthetic versions of the cortisol hormone are used in medical treatment for a range of conditions. Many of these medications are available by prescription only.

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to changing levels of cortisol in the blood. Levels of this hormone run on a cycle throughout the day. People have very high levels of cortisol when they initially wake up and levels decline over the course of the day, falling to a low point several hours after going to sleep. This hormone is involved in maintaining homeostasis and regulating metabolism.

One important function of the cortisol hormone is the regulation of glucose levels in the blood. The hormone also regulates blood pressure, aspects of the digestive process, and a number of other functions that keep the body in homeostasis. Cortisol is also part of the immune system. It is involved in inflammatory responses and immune regulation. In addition, it is involved in short-term memory formation in the brain.


When people are under stress, levels of cortisol rise. Chronic stress can result in chronically high levels of cortisol, which can lead to symptoms like weight gain, memory problems, high blood pressure, and other health problems. The stress release of cortisol is designed to enable the flight or fight response with a quick burst of energy, but when people are in a state of constant high stress, levels of the hormone never have a chance to fall back down to normal levels. This is one reason why treatments for chronic stress include exercises and activities that are designed to reduce stress levels, allowing production of this hormone to slow down.

Medically, synthetic preparations of this hormone are used in the treatment of inflammatory medical issues ranging from asthma to skin rashes. Mild hydrocortisone creams that include the cortisol hormone are available over the counter for treatment of mild chafing and rashes. Stronger medications require a prescription and it is important to follow the administration directions carefully to reduce the risk of side effects. People who are taking cortisol hormone should make sure that their doctors are aware of the medications they are using and the dosages.


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Post 3

@ZipLine-- I'm not sure what the connection is between cortisol and weight gain. I think it depends on the individual. Someone who has high cortisol due to stress might experience increased appetite and gain weight, while another might experience the opposite and lose weight.

I don't think there can be a general rule that applies to everyone because we all experience different levels of cortisol throughout the day. I might have the highest levels of cortisol in the morning but you might have the highest levels at noon because of environmental stress.

So how do we know when our cortisol is high? It seems impossible without regular testing of cortisol levels and I don't think that's possible at home.

Does anyone know if cortisol causes more calorie-burning?

Post 2

I read in a health magazine recently that not eating when cortisol hormone levels are high can encourage weight loss. Is there any truth to this? I think only one study has been done on it.

Post 1

I have an anxiety disorder and I think that high cortisol levels might be the cause. My doctor said that stress response is normal when we feel that we are under attack. But I'm experiencing an abnormal stress response because my body and mind think it's under attack even when it isn't.

Our ancestors used to produce a mass of cortisol when a tiger was chasing them so that they could run and defend themselves. But many of us experience the same amount of cortisol production at work, simply sitting at our desk.

If I get stressed out at work, I can have an anxiety attack just sitting in front of my computer. It's very unpleasant.

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