Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Why stress causes people to overeat

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response
Harvard Mental Health Letter

There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.

” Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating.

Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.

In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.

But if stress persists, it's a different story.

The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.

Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — cortisol may stay elevated.

Stress eating, hormones and hunger

Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role.

Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods.

Of course, overeating isn't the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight.

Why do people stress eat?

Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more ly to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. And a Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men.

Harvard researchers have reported that stress from work and other sorts of problems correlates with weight gain, but only in those who were overweight at the beginning of the study period. One theory is that overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more ly to occur in the presence of high insulin.

How much cortisol people produce in response to stress may also factor into the stress–weight gain equation. In 2007, British researchers designed an ingenious study that showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels in an experimental setting were more ly to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low-cortisol responders.

How to relieve stress without overeating

When stress affects someone's appetite and waistline, the individual can forestall further weight gain by ridding the refrigerator and cupboards of high-fat, sugary foods. Keeping those “comfort foods” handy is just inviting trouble.

Here are some other suggestions for countering stress:

Meditation. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab a fat- and sugar-loaded comfort food and inhibit the impulse.

Exercise. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.

Social support. Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience.

For example, research suggests that people working in stressful situations, hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support.

But even people who live and work in situations where the stakes aren't as high need help from time to time from friends and family.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat

13 proven natural ways to lower cortisol

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response
Share on PinterestStress triggers the release of cortisol.

The body relies on effective communication between the following three parts of the body to release the correct amount of cortisol:

  • the adrenal gland
  • the pituitary gland
  • the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain

Between them, they stimulate the production of cortisol when the body needs it and block it when the levels need to drop back down.

Both too much and too little cortisol can have an adverse effect on the body.

High cortisol level symptoms

Excess cortisol could result from a tumor or as a side effect of some medications.

Too much cortisol can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Symptoms include:

  • high blood pressure
  • a flushed face
  • muscle weakness
  • increased thirst
  • urinating more frequently
  • changes in mood, such as feeling irritable or low
  • rapid weight gain in the face and abdomen
  • osteoporosis
  • bruises or purple stretch marks appearing on the skin
  • decreased sex drive

Some people may also find that their periods become irregular or stop altogether.

Too much cortisol can also cause other conditions and symptoms, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • fatigue
  • impaired brain function
  • infections

Low cortisol level symptoms

Too little cortisol could cause Addison’s disease. Symptoms of this condition include:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • muscle weakness
  • gradual weight loss
  • changes in mood
  • areas of the skin turning darker
  • low blood pressure

If the communication between the brain and the adrenal gland is functioning correctly, the body should be able to increase and reduce cortisol production as necessary.

However, levels of cortisol can sometimes remain high even after the resolution of a stressful situation. This can have a negative impact on health.

The following simple tips may help to moderate cortisol levels:

1. Lowering stress

People trying to lower their cortisol levels should aim to reduce stress.

They can do this by removing themselves from stressful situations, where possible, or learning how to cope with stress better.

People can learn to recognize the triggers for their stress and try to manage these proactively to reduce instances of worry or anxiety and decrease feelings of tension.

People who learn how to cope when stressful thoughts arise will manage their cortisol levels better. In cases where this proves too difficult, some medications can contribute to improved stress tolerance and lower cortisol levels.

2. Eating a good diet

Share on PinterestDark chocolate may help to keep cortisol levels stable.

A person trying to lower their cortisol levels should eat a healthful, balanced diet and pay attention to their sugar intake.

Some foods that may help to keep cortisol levels stable include:

  • dark chocolate
  • bananas and pears
  • black or green tea
  • probiotics in food such as yogurt
  • probiotics in foods containing soluble fiber

Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration also helps to keep cortisol levels lower.

3. Sleeping well

The amount of sleep that a person has can affect their cortisol levels.

A bad night’s sleep or more prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol in the bloodstream.

Therefore, it is essential for people to pay attention to the amount and quality of sleep they have and try to limit the chance of disruptions.

4. Trying relaxation techniques

People experiencing stress can try to manage it by experimenting with relaxation techniques.

Meditation, mindfulness, and even simple breathing exercises can help a person deal with stress more effectively.

5. Taking up a hobby

Hobbies can be a rewarding and satisfying way to lead a fuller and healthier life, and they can lead to an increased sense of well-being.

A study on substance abuse treatments found that gardening led to decreased levels of cortisol. It also seemed to improve quality of life more than the conventional occupational therapy.

6. Learning to unwind

People relax in different ways, so understanding what works on a personal level can be beneficial.

Research has shown that relaxation exercises and listening to relaxing music can both reduce cortisol levels, but whatever helps an individual to manage their stress will be beneficial.

7. Laughing and having fun

It is hard to feel stressed when having a good time, so finding time to have fun can also lower a person’s cortisol levels. One study showed cortisol levels decreasing in response to laughter.

Being happy and having a positive outlook appear to be related to lower cortisol levels, and happiness has other benefits too, such as lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.

8. Exercising

Share on PinterestExercise can help to improve a person’s mood.

Being physically active is beneficial to health and can improve a person’s mood.

Intense exercise can, however, trigger an increase in cortisol levels, as this is the body’s way of coping with the additional stress that the exercise places upon it.

The appropriate amount of exercise depends on various factors, including a person’s physical fitness, and these factors play a part in how much cortisol the body will release during exercise.

9. Avoiding caffeine at night

People trying to lower their cortisol levels should avoid consuming food and beverages containing caffeine in the evening. Caffeine can interfere with a good night’s sleep, and sleeping well can keep cortisol levels low.

10. Maintaining a good bedtime routine

A good bedtime routine usually results in longer and higher-quality sleep. People should get into the habit of turning off all screens and just relaxing before heading to bed.

It will usually also help to keep phones, and any other potential distractions turned off. Limiting fluid intake before bedtime can also minimize the lihood of disturbed sleep.

11. Having good relationships

Stable, loving relationships with partners, friends, and family can be vital when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, and they can help a person get through stressful periods.

If relationships are unhappy and unhealthy, however, they can cause a great deal of stress.

One study indicated that a person’s cortisol level can rise after an argument with their partner. Another reported that children with a happy and secure family life have lower levels of cortisol than those living in homes where there is regular conflict.

12. Getting a pet

Some studies indicate that having a pet can lower cortisol levels.

One study measured levels of cortisol in children undergoing a standard medical procedure. Those who had a dog present during the procedure had lower cortisol levels than those who did not.

Another found that contact with a dog was more beneficial for cortisol levels than a supportive friend during a stressful situation.

13. Taking supplements

Both fish oil and an Asian herbal supplement called ashwagandha have shown the ability to reduce cortisol levels, so taking these supplements alongside a healthful diet could be beneficial.

Having too much cortisol in the blood can be damaging to health, particularly if cortisol levels remain high over an extended period.

Trying to lower stress levels is the best way to lower cortisol. By making simple lifestyle changes to live a healthier, more active life, people can reduce the amount of stress they experience, and keep their cortisol levels normal.

Source: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322335

Cortisol: Why the

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Source: The Digital Artist/Pixabay

The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy Number One. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease—the list goes on.

Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase one's risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience — especially in adolescence.

Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.

The fight-or-flight mechanism is part of the general adaptation syndrome defined in 1936 by biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University.

He published his revolutionary findings in a simple 74-line article in Nature, in which he defined two types of “stress” — eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress).

Both eustress and distress release cortisol as part of the general adaptation syndrome. Once the alarm to release cortisol has sounded, your body becomes mobilized and ready for action — but there has to be a physical release of fight or flight. Otherwise, cortisol levels build up in the blood, which wreaks havoc on your mind and body.

Eustress creates a “seize-the-day” heightened state of arousal, which is invigorating and often linked with a tangible goal. Cortisol levels return to normal upon completion of the task.

Distress, or free-floating anxiety, doesn't provide an outlet for the cortisol and causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to backfire.

Ironically, our own biology — which was designed to insure our survival as hunters and gatherers — is sabotaging our bodies and minds in a sedentary digital age. What can we do to defuse this time-bomb?

Luckily, you can make 5 simple lifestyle choices that will reduce stress and anxiety and lower your cortisol levels:

1. Regular Physical Activity. Kickboxing, sparring, or a punching bag are terrific ways to recreate the “fight” response by letting out aggression (without hurting anyone), thus reducing cortisol.

Aerobic activities, walking, jogging, swimming, biking, or riding the elliptical, are great ways to recreate the “flight” outlet and burn up cortisol. A little bit of cardio goes a long way: Just 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week pays huge dividends by lowering cortisol every day and in the long run. 

Fear increases cortisol. Regular physical activity will decrease fear by increasing your self-confidence, resilience, and fortitude — which will reduce cortisol. Yoga will have a similar effect, with the added benefit of mindfulness training.

If your schedule is too hectic to squeeze in a continuous session of aerobic activity, you can reap the same benefits by breaking daily activity into smaller doses.

An easy way to guarantee regular activity is to build inadvertent activity into your daily routine.

Rding a bike to work, walking to the store, taking the stairs instead of the escalator — these all add up to a cumulative tally of reduced cortisol at the end of the day.  

2. Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM). Any type of meditation will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels.

Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease cortisol.

The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your “fight-or-flight” response, take 10 deep breaths, and feel your entire body relax and decompress.

Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes to practice mindfulness or meditation will fortify a sense of calm throughout your nervous system, mind, and brain. There are many different types of meditation. “Meditating” doesn’t have to be a sacred or New-Agey, “woo-woo” experience.

People often ask me what kind of meditation I do and how to practice “Loving-Kindness Meditation” (LKM). I am not an expert, but have developed a technique that works for me.

I suggest that you do more research, visit a meditation center if you can, and fine-tune a daily meditation practice that fits your schedule and personality. Below is my daily meditation routine:

I to practice two types of meditation in one 15-minute session. Personally, I to use a timer and an “Om” or “Aum” track I have on my iTunes. Some purists might call this “sacrilege,” but it works for me, and it might work for you.

To begin, I jot down the names of people I know who are struggling or suffering on a notecard. Next, I set my iPhone to a 15-minute countdown that ends in a harp sound. Then, I sit upright in a chair with my legs crossed at the ankles, set the timer, start the Om/Aum track, and sit with my palms open and facing upwards on my knees.

I begin with a mindfulness meditation of simply focusing on my breath and repeating my “mantra,” which is three words that resonate with me. You can choose any word or combination of words that have meaning and significance to you. I repeat these words silently in my mind a rosary, as I take deep breaths, relax my shoulders, and feel myself drift into a trance- state.  

After a few minutes, I move into the Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) phase, which has three steps for me. First, I go through the checklist of specific people I know who are struggling, suffering (or frustrating me), and send them love, light, strength, and compassion.

Secondly, I move to universal thoughts of loving-kindness for strangers I may have read about in the news or larger populations that are suffering. Thirdly, as part of the LKM phase, I focus on self-compassion and forgive myself for my “trespasses” and ask for atonement.

After I’ve completed the LKM cycle, I return back to a single-focused meditation, emptying my mind and focusing on my breathing until the alarm goes off. When I hear the harp sound, there is always a Pavlovian-conditioned response of an “ahhh” feeling, accompanied by a big exhale, as I open my eyes and face the real world again.

Remember, you can meditate anytime and any place. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful de-stressor and cortisol reducer that is always in your toolbox and at your fingertips. You can squeeze in a few minutes of meditation on the subway, in a waiting room, on a coffee break.

3. Social Connectivity. Two studies published this week in Science illustrate that social aggression and isolation lead to increased levels of cortisol in mice, which trigger a cascade of potential mental health problems — especially in adolescence.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins established that elevated levels of cortisol in adolescence change the expression of numerous genes linked to mental illness in some people.

They found that these changes in young adulthood (a critical time for brain development) could cause severe mental illness in those predisposed for it.

These findings, reported in the January 2013 issue of Science, could have wide-reaching implications in both the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia, severe depression, and other mental illnesses.

Akira Sawa, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team set out to simulate the social isolation associated with the difficult years of adolescence in human teens.

They found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered “abnormal behaviors” that continued even when they were returned to the group.

They found that the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood.

“We have discovered a mechanism for how environmental factors, such as stress hormones, can affect the brain's physiology and bring about mental illness,” said Sawa.

“We've shown in mice that stress in adolescence can affect the expression of a gene that codes for a key neurotransmitter related to mental function and psychiatric illness.

While many genes are believed to be involved in the development of mental illness, my gut feeling is environmental factors are critically important to the process.”

To shed light on how and why some mice got better, Sawa and his team studied the link between cortisol and the release of dopamine.

Sawa says the new study suggests that we need to think about better preventative care for teenagers who have mental illness in their families, including efforts to protect them from social stressors, such as neglect.

Meanwhile, by understanding the cascade of events that occurs when cortisol levels are elevated, researchers may be able to develop new compounds to target tough-to-treat psychiatric disorders with fewer side effects.

In another study published in Science, French researchers revealed that mice subjected to aggression by specific mice bred to be “bullies” released cortisol, which triggered a response that led to social aversion to all other mice.

The exact cascade of neurobiological changes was complex, but also involved dopamine. The researchers found that if they blocked the cortisol receptors, the bullied mice became more resilient and no longer avoided their fellow creatures.

Close-knit human bonds — whether it be family, friendship, or a romantic partner — are vital for your physical and mental health at any age. Recent studies have shown that the Vagus nerve also responds to human connectivity and physical touch to relax your parasympathetic nervous system.

The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight.” The “tend-and-befriend” response increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can, but phone calls and even contact can reduce cortisol if they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity.

4. Laughter and Levity. Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. American psychiatrist William Fry has found links to laughter and lowered levels of stress hormones. Many studies have shown the benefits of having a sense of humor, laughter, and levity. Try to find ways in your daily life to laugh and joke as much as possible, and you'll lower cortisol levels. 

5. Music. Listening to music that you love, and that fits the mood you're in, has been shown to lower cortisol levels.

I recently wrote here about the wide range of benefits that come from listening to music. We all know the power of music to improve mood and reduce stress.

Add reducing your cortisol levels as another reason to keep the music playing as a soundtrack of health and happiness in your life. 


President Obama’s second inaugural speech brought up many calls to action that can be framed through the lens of “Cortisol as Public Health Enemy Number One.” The ripple effect of a fearful, isolated, and stressed-out society increases cortisol levels across the board for Americans of all ages. This creates a public health crisis and a huge drain on our economy.

If each of us works alone, and together, to reduce cortisol levels, we will all benefit. As citizens, if we live we are “All for one, and one for all,” we can reduce the amount of stress hormone in our society and individual lives.  

Feeling socially connected, safe, and self-reliant reduces cortisol. I hope these tips will help you make lifestyle choices that reduce your levels of stress hormone.

Lastly, in light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we are all looking for components to a multi-pronged approach that will stop the violence and bloodshed. In my opinion, one way to do this is to create public health policies and funding aimed specifically at reducing cortisol levels in American youth.

In Obama’s speech, he declared, “Our journey is not complete until all of our children, from the streets of Detroit, to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

” Beyond talk of gun violence legislation, if our legislators and business leaders strive to create policies and fund initiatives that create social connectivity among at-risk teens and reduce bullying, they will be reducing cortisol levels in young people.

This should make them mentally and physically healthier, more resilient, and less ly to be violent.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1

Beware High Levels of Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

  • Anxiety
  • Emotional Health
  • Stress

Women. Wisdom. Wellness. Feb 5, 2017

We’ve all felt that surge of energy as we confront something threatening or startling. A barely avoided car accident. A call that your child has been hurt. The pressure to meet a deadline.

As your body perceives stress, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s your natural “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years.

Normal levels of cortisol also are released when you wake up in the morning or exercise. These levels can help regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar levels and even strengthen your heart muscle. In small doses, the hormone can heighten memory, increase your immune system and lower sensitivity to pain.

The danger of a fast-paced culture, however, is that many of us are constantly in high-stress mode. If your body experiences chronic stress, you may begin to feel unpleasant and even dangerous effects, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Intestinal problems, such as constipation, bloating or diarrhea
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Weight gain
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Low libido, erectile dysfunction or problems with regular ovulation or menstrual periods
  • Difficulty recovering from exercise
  • Poor sleep

How Cortisol Works

When the adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream, the hormone triggers a flood of glucose that supplies an immediate energy source to your large muscles. It also inhibits insulin production so the glucose won’t be stored but will be available for immediate use.

Cortisol narrows the arteries, while another hormone, epinephrine, increases your heart rate. Working together, they force your blood to pump harder and faster as you confront and resolve the immediate threat.

If your entire life is high-stress and always in high gear, your body may constantly pump out cortisol.

Hormone levels return to normal as you swerve to miss an oncoming car, find out that your child has only a few scrapes or meet the deadline for your presentation.

Why Too Much of a Good Thing is Bad for You

If your entire life is high-stress and always in high gear, your body may constantly pump out cortisol. This has several negative effects.

  1. Increased blood sugar levels. Insulin typically helps the cells convert glucose to energy. As your pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don’t get the sugar they need to perform at their best.
  2. Weight gain. As your cells are crying out for energy, your body may send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and thus gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.
  3. Suppressed immune system. Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually suppress your immune system. You could be more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you may develop food allergies.
  4. Digestive problems. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. It’s no coincidence that ulcers occur during stressful times and people with colitis or irritable bowel syndrome report better symptom control when they get their stress under control.
  5. Heart disease. Constricted arteries and high blood pressure can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque buildup in your arteries. They could be setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

How to Take Action

See your doctor if you are having symptoms of chronic stress. There’s a saliva test that can measure the amount of cortisol in your system, or your doctor may have other ideas about what’s causing your symptoms.

Be aware of your own stress levels and takes steps to manage your stress. Simple practices such as getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating, deep breathing techniques and scheduling leisure activities are a good start.

Source: Today’s Dietitian; American Osteopathic Association; VeryWell

Small Steps: Pay Attention to What You Eat

Keep high-fat snacks the house and eat slowly to combat stress eating.

Source: https://www.premierhealth.com/your-health/articles/women-wisdom-wellness-/beware-high-levels-of-cortisol-the-stress-hormone

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Cortisol is widely known as a “stress hormone.” Some research suggests that it may impact blood sugar, proteins, cholesterol, and inflammatory markers.

According to one hypothesis, imbalanced cortisol may create a lot of health issues that at first seem unrelated.

What does the science say? Learn about factors that may trigger excessive cortisol release in , PAH, PCBs had a decreased cortisol response [56], so other toxins may impair cortisol. More research is needed.


  • Overeating (esp. in men) [57] – mostly caused by VIP [58]
  • Lectins (subjective)
  • Protein restriction/Leucine deprivation [59]
  • Excess sodium [60]
  • Severe calorie restriction [12]
  • Excess omega-6 [12]
  • Intermittent Fasting or regular Fasting [61] – Modern Ramadan practices in Saudi Arabia are associated with excess evening cortisol (and increased insulin resistance.) Other kinds of fasting might decrease CRH. More research is needed [62].

Nutrient Deficiencies

  • Vitamin A inadequacy [63, 64]
  • Zinc inadequacy [65]
  • Magnesium inadequacy [66, 67]
  • Potassium loading [68] – increases ACTH and cortisol in humans. Scientists suspect this might be the reason why potassium deficiency causes cortisol to decline (as mentioned) and causes a decrease in the conversion of 11-deoxycortisol to cortisol. This may also have a role in rheumatoid arthritis pain; cell potassium is always low in RA [12].

Hormonal Pathways and Neurotransmitters

The following factors are theoretical. They help scientists better understand the stress response pathway, but their impact hasn’t been tested in humans.

Be sure to discuss your hormone-related labs with your doctor and do not start or stop taking prescription hormones unless recommended by a doctor.

Hormones: CCK [71, 72], NPY [73], Estrogen (alpha, beta – CRH) [74], Pregnenolone, DHEA[75], GLP-1 [76], Leptin [77], VIP (raises CRH) [78], Sex hormones [79], Thyroid hormones [80], Vasopressin (releases CRH [81] and ACTH [82]), Ghrelin [79], AngiotensinII/ACE [83, 84], Insulin [79], Substance P (CRHR1) [84, 85], Low estrogen and melatonin supplementation increase cortisol levels in postmenopausal women [12]. MSH (prevents a fasting-induced decrease in CRH) [62]. Insulin may cause the release of vasopressin, which stimulates ACTH/cortisol [86].

Peptides: Orexins [87], NGF [37], BDNF [75]

Neurotransmitters: Noradrenaline [88], Glutamate [89], Dopamine (D1/D2) (CRH in PVN) [90] – contradictory [91], Serotonin (specifically 5-HT2CRs): Serotonin increased CRH and its neuronal activity and CRH (and corticosterone release) [92, 93]. Acetylcholine [34]. Chronic SSRI usage increases CRH, but decreases ACTH and therefore cortisol [94], but fluoxetine decreases CRH [95].


Scientists suspect that chronic stress increases CRH receptors in the PVN, which might make people even more susceptible to the harmful effects of stress [96].

Everyone is affected differently by stress. Limited studies suggest that, in many conditions such as Autism, psychological stress over-activates the stress response pathway and results in too much cortisol [97]. In IBS, CRH seems to cause significantly more ACTH when compared to people without IBS [98].

Thus, with a given amount of HPA activation, some people are affected more. Larger human studies are needed to better understand these relationships.

Factors That May Counteract the Stress Response

Supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective.

It’s important to consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or supplements regime.


  • Positive social encounters [35]
  • Laughing/being happy [12]
  • Meditation [99]
  • Yoga [100]
  • Being physically active (lowers cortisol in the longer term) [101]
  • Massage therapy [102]
  • Regular dancing [12]
  • Music therapy [12]

Investigational Supplements

  • Probiotics [69]
  • Phosphatidylserine [12]
  • Magnesium (decreases CRH, ACTH response to CRH, Cortisol response ACTH) [66, 67, 111]
  • Selenium [112]
  • Lysine [112]
  • Vitamin C [112]
  • Fish Oil/DHA (CRH) [12, 113]
  • Curcumin [114]
  • Aromatherapy (orange) [115]
  • Bile supplements (maybe) [116]
  • Black Cumin Seed Oil [117]
  • Rhodiola/Salidroside (CRH, enhances GR) [118]
  • SAM-e/Hydrogen Sulfide (in response to the stressor, CRH) [119]
  • P5P/Hydrogen Sulfide (in response to the stressor, CRH) [120]
  • Lipoic Acid (CRH) [121]
  • St John’s [122]
  • Alleged GABAergic supplements Hi-Maize/Butyrate, Ketogenic diets, Honokiol [112], Theanine [112], Hops [112], Chinese Skullcap [112], Kava [112], Valerian [112], Ginkgo [112], Taurine (high dosage), Ashwagandha (weak), Bacopa (weak), Astragalus (weak), etc.
  • Schisandra (Cortisol) [123]

Proper evidence is lacking to support the use of any of these supplements in people who are under high stress.

Hormonal Pathways

Oxytocin [35], Endorphins [70], GHRH (in men, but not women) [124], NPY – antagonizes CRH, even though it increases its release (Y1 receptor, lateral septum) [125, 126], Progesterone (lowers CRH), Allopregnanolone (progesterone metabolite) [127], Testosterone [128] – In people, testosterone increases ACTH and lowers cortisol in response to CRH [129]. In male animals, DHT reduces corticosterone response to stressors. So finasteride can increase the stress response by reducing DHT [130]. a-MSH lessens the stimulatory effects of IL-1b on the HPA axis [131].

GABA-related: inhibit the HPA axis. This includes GABAb [132, 133] or GABAa [134, 135]. Note that in normal situations, GABA inhibits CRH. But after stress, GABA may stimulate CRH [134].

NPY Stimulators: Eleuthero (NPY) [136], Schisandra (NPY) [136],

Stress Before Birth

There is evidence that prenatal stress can influence HPA regulation, though more human research is needed.

In animal experiments, exposure to prenatal stress led to a hyper-reactive HPA stress response [137].

Rats that were prenatally stressed had elevated baseline levels and abnormal circadian rhythm of corticosterone as adults [137].

Some studies have found an association between maternal depression during pregnancy and childhood cortisol levels [138].

Additionally, these children may require a longer time for their stress hormone levels to return to baseline following exposure to both acute and prolonged stressors [138].

In limited human studies, prolonged maternal stress during gestation was associated with mild impairment of intellectual activity and language development in their children, and with behavior disorders such as attention deficits, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression; self-reported maternal stress is associated with higher irritability, emotional and attentional problems [139].

However, these findings should be cautiously interpreted. Most of the studies dealt with associations. And while we know that being relaxed during pregnancy is probably better for the future baby, we don’t know how much stress – and what type of stress – will cause significant and long-term harm.

Early Childhood

Early-life exposure to extreme or prolonged stress has been suggested to induce a hyper-reactive HPA Axis and may contribute to lifelong vulnerability to stress [140].

Mothering may enhance HPA functioning in at least two ways.

First, maternal care seems to be crucial in maintaining normal stress in a period where the HPA doesn’t activate much in childhood. The extreme stress of maternal separation may lead to permanent HPA dysregulation, according to one animal study [141].

Second, increased maternal handling (hugging, kissing) has been suggested to alter the expression of the glucocorticoid receptor gene implicated in adaptive stress response (in animals) [142].

According to one study, adult victims of childhood abuse seem to show increased ACTH concentrations in response to CRH/stress, compared to healthy controls and people with depression but not childhood abuse [143].

Source: https://selfhacked.com/blog/reasons-cortisol-low-high/

Cortisol | You and Your Hormones from the Society for Endocrinology

Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of vital processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon.

These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and helping development of the foetus.

In many species cortisol is also responsible for triggering the processes involved in giving birth.

A similar version of this hormone, known as corticosterone, is produced by rodents, birds and reptiles.

How is cortisol controlled?

Blood levels of cortisol vary throughout the day, but generally are higher in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm.

In people that work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns.

In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately.

The secretion of cortisol is mainly controlled by three inter-communicating regions of the body; the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. This is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis.

When cortisol levels in the blood are low, a group of cells in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which causes the pituitary gland to secrete another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, into the bloodstream.

High levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone are detected in the adrenal glands and stimulate the secretion of cortisol, causing blood levels of cortisol to rise.

As the cortisol levels rise, they start to block the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus and adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary. As a result, the adrenocorticotropic hormone levels start to drop, which then leads to a drop in cortisol levels. This is called a negative feedback loop.

What happens if I have too much cortisol?

Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to a condition called Cushing's syndrome. This can be caused by a wide range of factors, such as a tumour that produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (and therefore increases cortisol secretion), or taking certain types of drugs. The symptoms include:

  • rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest and abdomen contrasted with slender arms and legs
  • a flushed and round face
  • high blood pressure
  • osteoporosis
  • skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks)
  • muscle weakness
  • mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression or irritability
  • increased thirst and frequency of urination.

High cortisol levels over a prolonged time can also cause lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether (amenorrhoea).

In addition, there has been a long-standing association between raised or impaired regulation of cortisol levels and a number of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, the significance of this is not yet clearly understood.

What happens if I have too little cortisol?

Too little cortisol may be due to a problem in the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland (Addison's disease). The onset of symptoms is often very gradual. Symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness (especially upon standing), weight loss, muscle weakness, mood changes and the darkening of regions of the skin. Without treatment, this is a potentially life-threatening condition.

Urgent assessment by a specialist hormone doctor called an endocrinologist is required when a diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome or Addison's disease is suspected.

Last reviewed: Jan 2019

Source: https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/


Factors that Impact Low/High Cortisol & the Stress Response

Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response, however, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress. Understanding cortisol and its affect on the body will help you balance your hormones and achieve good health.

Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands. Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a combination glands often referred to as the HPA axis.

What does cortisol do?

Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation.

It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy.

All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

Problems associated with high cortisol levels

Sometimes tumors on the pituitary or adrenal glands can contribute to a condition known as Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by high levels of cortisol in the blood. Individuals with Cushing syndrome will experience rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen, and chest.

Often doctors will notice this because of the individual's slender arms and legs compared to the heavy weight in the core of the body. Cushing syndrome also causes a flushed face, high blood pressure, and changes in the skin.

Osteoporosis and mood swings are also a factor considered with Cushing disease.

High cortisol levels can also contribute to changes in a woman's libido and menstrual cycle, even without the presence of Cushing disease. Anxiety and depression may also be linked to high cortisol levels.

The effects of low cortisol levels

Low cortisol levels can cause a condition known as primary adrenal insufficiency or Addison disease.

While rare, primary adrenal insufficiency is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the adrenal glands. Symptoms may start slowly, but they can be quite serious.

Patients with primary adrenal insufficiency can experience fatigue, muscle loss, weight loss, mood swings, and changes to the skin.

Questions to ask your doctor

If you suspect that your cortisol levels are not where they should be, the first step to getting help is to talk to your doctor. Your doctor can order a number of tests to determine if you have low or high cortisol levels. Questions to ask your doctor include:

  • How do cortisol levels vary throughout the day?
  • What underlying conditions could be affecting my cortisol levels?
  • How can I manage cortisol levels to regain my health?
  • What testing is needed to determine the cause of my symptoms?

Last Updated: November 2018

Source: https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/cortisol