9 Fun and Interesting Facts About Cortisol

Stress is a fact of life and so is cortisol—your constant companion during stressful situations. Cortisol is there for brief stressors, like when you wake up late and have to rush to work. And cortisol is with you when stress is more long term, like when you are dealing with a chronic illness.

There’s a lot to know about your body’s primary stress hormone. That’s because it does a lot more than make you feel overwhelmed. Check out this list of cortisol facts and see all that this hormone can do.

  1. Cortisol is a Hormone that Travels in the Blood

Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted into the blood as a response to stress. Anything stressful can make cortisol levels to rise. It can be commonplace, like stress at work or at home. Or it can be stress from physical treats like a car accident, a hard fall, or any encounter with danger. Elevated cortisol is part of your body’s natural reaction to these stressful situations.

It’s the main chemical messenger that can relay instructions or information from one part of the body to the other during times of stress. That’s probably why cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.”

Usually cortisol levels peak when stress is high and returns to normal when stress subsides. Spikes in cortisol can help your body perform under pressure. But when cortisol concentration stays elevated for too long, some body functions can be negatively impacted.

  1. Adrenal Glands Manufacture Cortisol

Sitting on top of each kidney are the triangle-shaped adrenal glands. Since kidneys filter blood, it’s an ideal place for producing this hormone. That way, cortisol has an easy path from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream.

Even though cortisol is made in the adrenal glands, they can’t release it into the bloodstream on their own. The adrenal glands wait for special instructions from the brain before they secrete cortisol into the body.

  1. The Pituitary Gland Controls Cortisol Release

The adrenal glands’ commands come from a small, pea-sized region of the brain called the pituitary gland. From its location in the center of the brain—behind the eyes—it controls the release of many hormones in addition to cortisol.

The pituitary gland and hypothalamus work together to detect stress. To help you cope with a stressful situation, the pituitary gland can change the amount of cortisol circulating in your blood. And if levels rise or fall out of the normal range, the pituitary gland can adjust the amount of the hormone released by the adrenal glands.

  1. Almost Every Kind of Cell in the Body Has Cortisol Receptors

Chemical messengers like cortisol can only act if their target cell has a receptor. That’s what allows them to bind and deliver the message. One reason such a wide range of cortisol function exists is because nearly every kind of cell has cortisol receptors. So, cortisol has the ability to effect change in most areas of the body.

  1. Cortisol Promotes Energy Efficiency

Glucose is the compound your body needs to create cellular energy (ATP). Carbohydrates are easiest food for your body to pull glucose from. Fats and proteins are trickier and require more steps.

Under normal circumstances, your body stores fat and protein for energy reserves. When your body is stressed and needs as much energy as possible, cortisol steps in and helps turn fats and proteins into more easily usable glucose. In doing this, cortisol makes your body more fuel efficient by using fats and proteins from your diet for energy immediately.

The process of converting fats and proteins to glucose is called gluconeogenesis (gluco = glucose, neo = new, genesis = create). It’s an alternative pathway your body can use to make glucose from non-carbohydrates.

Gluconeogenesis increases the amount of available glucose when your body needs energy the most. By converting fats and proteins into sugar, your brain maintains a steady supply of glucose while still allocating enough energy to power your muscles, heart, and lungs.

Without cortisol, your body would burn its own muscle and fat tissue for energy. Instead, cortisol functions to protect your muscles and necessary body fat during periods of high stress.

  1. Cortisol Can Contribute to Weight Gain

Many people turn to food when feeling bogged down by stress. This craving for fatty, sugary foods is actually the result of a prolonged increase in cortisol levels.

Elevated cortisol stimulates the release of extra insulin, which can cause your blood sugar to drop off. To bring blood sugar back up to the normal range you crave food with lots of carbs. This temporary fix with sugary food will bring your blood sugar back up, but it can also create a damaging habit.

When stress and cortisol increases last a long time, so is insulin and the craving for fattening foods. Over time, using sugary foods to balance blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Note that it is not cortisol itself that triggers weight gain. But the consequences of prolonged cortisol level elevation and the effects on insulin and blood sugar can lead you to pack on the pounds.

  1. Immunity Can be Affected by Cortisol

To power your body through stressful times, cortisol slows down some body functions. Unfortunately, your immunity is one of those systems that is put on the backburner. So, it’s not surprising that studies have shown elevated cortisol levels temporarily suppress your immune system.

Cortisol does this by pulling resources from the cells that fight off germs. White-blood-cell production decreases, giving room for viruses and bacteria to take hold. Swelling (your body’s natural reaction to infection) also decreases during times of stress. That’s partly because cortisol puts the cells that promote swelling (B cells and helper T cells) in short supply.

When cortisol levels drop and your immune system comes back online, it’s got a lot of work to catch up on. Dormant viruses use periods of lowered immunity to infect the body. That’s why you might feel sick after prolonged stress.

  1. Memory Trouble and Cortisol are Linked

It’s hard to think clearly when you’re stressed out. If you’ve ever been running behind and couldn’t find your shoes or your car keys, you know this to be true. Heightened cortisol levels can cast a haze over your memory and make it difficult to recollect important information.

Ironically, cortisol actually assists in memory formation. Which explains why some of your most frightening experiences remain vivid memories. But when it comes to recall skills (the kind you need for a test or to remember someone’s name) cortisol has the opposite effect.

Cortisol binds to receptors in the hippocampus and amygdala—the memory hub of your brain. A lot of cortisol circulating in the blood overwhelms your brain. And the flood of stress hormones makes recalling information difficult.

One scientific experiment showed that people can recall information better once cortisol levels start to go down. The findings of the study support the idea that trying to calm down when feeling stressed can improve your ability to remember information.

Taking deep breaths, stretching, meditating, and positive affirmations are all activities that can reduce cortisol and help you calm down. Try pausing for a minute to relax and breathe the next time you are feeling stressed. It could be the trick to helping you remember what you need.

  1. High Cortisol Levels Negatively Impact Bone Growth

Cortisol diverts energy to muscles and the brain. But what part of the body take a hit? Bones are one. Their growth comes to a halt as a result of increase in the stress hormone. And while your bones don’t grow in length as an adult, they do rely on growth mechanisms to stay strong.

Bone-building cells called osteoblasts turn off when cortisol levels are high. Osteoblasts reinforce bones by depositing calcium and collagen into the skeletal structure. Without osteoblasts working during peak cortisol levels, their counterparts (osteoclasts) wreak havoc on bone tissue.

Osteoclasts reabsorb calcium from bones. Demineralizing bones makes them weaker and more prone to breakage. So, long periods of stress can eventually weaken bone tissue. That’s why it is so important to keep cortisol levels within a normal range—for the sake of your bones as well as the rest of your body.

How to Lower Cortisol Levels

Cortisol and stress go hand-in-hand. So, reducing the amount of stress in your life can ensure cortisol levels stay in a healthy range. And, generally speaking, less is more when it comes to cortisol.

Try some of these activities to keep cortisol in check the next time you’re feeling stressed:

  • Prioritize exercise. This can be walking, swimming, gardening, or playing with your kids.
  • Incorporate daily meditation. Take a few moments to tune out your stresses and tune into your body and mind.
  • Focus on deep breathing. Full, deep breaths can reduce cortisol and help you calm down when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Practice yoga. This form of stretching combines meditation and exercise, which adds up to relaxation.
  • Find helpful distractions. Work on your favorite hobbies, serve someone in need, or complete a manageable task around your house. Being productive can turn your thoughts away from what is stressing you out.
  • Get a restful night of sleep. Cortisol levels are cyclical. When you don’t sleep enough, cortisol stays elevated and can leave you feeling even more stressed.
  • Eat a healthy meal. Fill your belly with a good meal made of whole, nutritious foods to fuel your body.
  • Learn to say “no.” This one is hard. Don’t take on more responsibilities than you can handle. Avoid spreading yourself too thin and prioritize the most important tasks.