Cortisol Hormone

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that your adrenal glands, the endocrine glands on top of your kidneys, produce and release. Cortisol affects several aspects of your body and mainly helps regulate your body's response to stress.

What is Cortisol?

  • Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone that your adrenal glands produce and release.

  • Hormones are chemicals that coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles and other tissues.

  • These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.

  • Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone.

  • They suppress inflammation in all of your bodily tissues and control metabolism in your muscles, fat, liver and bones.

  • Glucocorticoids also affect sleep-wake cycles.

  • Your adrenal glands, also known as suprarenal glands, are small, triangle-shaped glands that are located on top of each of your two kidneys.

  • They’re a part of your endocrine system.

Is Cortisol a stress hormone?

  • Cortisol is widely known as the ‘stress hormone’.

  • However, it has many important effects and functions throughout your body aside from regulating your body’s stress response.

It’s also important to remember that, biologically speaking, there are multiple different kinds of stress, including:

  • Acute stress: Acute stress happens when you’re in sudden danger within a short period of time. For example, barely avoiding a car accident or being chased by an animal are situations that cause acute stress.

  • Chronic stress: Chronic (long-term) stress happens when you experience ongoing situations that cause frustration or anxiety. For example, having a difficult or frustrating job or having a chronic illness can cause chronic stress.

  • Traumatic stress: Traumatic stress happens when you experience a life-threatening event that induces fear and a feeling of helplessness. For example, experiencing an extreme weather event, such as a tornado, or experiencing war or sexual assault can cause traumatic stress. In some cases, these events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What does Cortisol do to my body?

Almost all tissues in your body have glucocorticoid receptors. Because of this, cortisol can affect nearly every organ system in your body, including:

  • Nervous system.

  • Immune system.

  • Cardiovascular system.

  • Respiratory system.

  • Reproductive systems (female and male).

  • Musculoskeletal system.

  • Integumentary system (skin, hair, nails, glands and nerves).

How does my body control Cortisol levels?

  • Your body has an elaborate system to regulate your cortisol levels.

  • Your hypothalamus, a small area of your brain involved in hormonal regulation, and your pituitary gland, a tiny gland located below your brain, regulate the production of cortisol in your adrenal glands.

  • When the levels of cortisol in your blood fall, your hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which directs your pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

  • ACTH then stimulates your adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.

  • In order to have optimal levels of cortisol in your body, your hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands must all be functioning properly.

What tests can check Cortisol levels?

Healthcare providers can measure your cortisol levels through blood, urine or saliva (spit) tests. They will determine which test is best depending on your symptoms.

What are normal Cortisol levels?

  • The level of cortisol in your blood, urine and saliva normally peaks in the early morning and declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest level around midnight.

  • This pattern can change if you work a night shift and sleep at different times of the day.

For most tests that measure cortisol levels in your blood, the normal ranges are:

  • 6 a.m. to 8 a.m : 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).

  • Around 4 p.m : 3 to 10 mcg/dL.

Normal ranges can vary from lab to lab, time to time and person to person. If you need to get a cortisol level test, your healthcare provider will interpret your results and let you know if you need to get further testing.

What are the symptoms of high Cortisol levels?

The symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome depend on how elevated your cortisol levels are.

Common signs and symptoms of higher-than-normal cortisol levels include:

  • Weight gain, especially in your face and abdomen.

  • Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades.

  • Wide, purple stretch marks on your abdomen (belly).

  • Muscle weakness in your upper arms and thighs.

  • High blood sugar, which often turns into Type 2 diabetes.

  • High blood pressure (hypertension).

  • Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) in people assigned female at birth.

  • Weak bones (osteoporosis) and fractures.

What are the symptoms of low Cortisol levels?

Symptoms of lower-than-normal cortisol levels, or adrenal insufficiency, include:

  • Fatigue.

  • Unintentional weight loss.

  • Poor appetite.

  • Low blood pressure (hypotension).

hormones cortisol

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