The "Stress Chemical" Cortisol: Short And Long-Term Effects On The Human Body

Medically reviewed by Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever heard of the "stress hormone?" Cortisol is often referred to by this name, although several chemical processes may occur when someone is stressed, including the release of adrenaline. The chemical is often seen in a negative light. However, this hormone does much more than respond to stress.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Stress can raise cortisol levels in the body

What is cortisol?

The adrenal glands in the human body may sound strictly responsible for producing adrenaline. However, each adrenal gland is responsible for producing numerous hormones. These hormones may control blood pressure, electrolyte balance, metabolism, and immune system suppression. One of the “stress hormones” produced by these two glands is the chemical known as cortisol. Other “stress hormones” you may have heard of include growth hormone and prolactin, though these are produced by the anterior pituitary gland. The anterior pituitary gland also produces adrenocorticotropic hormone, which controls the production of cortisol. When the function of adrenal and pituitary glands are combined with the hypothalamus, they make up the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis. When the HPA axis is activated, cortisol is released.

Most of the cells within a person's body contain glucocorticoid receptors. Thus, cortisol is involved in numerous bodily functions. Cortisol plays a role in controlling metabolism, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. It also contributes to memory formation in individuals and assists in fetal development for those who are pregnant. If too little cortisol is produced, a person may experience illnesses like Addison’s disease (also known as adrenal insufficiency), which can be life-threatening. 

Cortisol is also considered a steroid hormone, and may reduce inflammation within the body. For this reason, corticosteroids, hydrocortisone, and other medications that contain cortisone (a closely related chemical) are often used to treat specific injuries and inflammatory conditions.

What activates the release of cortisol in the body?

Incidents of stress are often referred to as the leading cause of cortisol production. Still, other factors in an individual's daily life may also affect cortisol secretion or increase the cortisol levels within the body. 

Lack of sleep 

A lack of proper sleep, particularly for individuals who sleep during the day rather than at night, has been linked to higher levels of the hormone cortisol compared to those who receive an appropriate amount of sleep at night or have more regular sleep schedules. Those who experience insomnia or frequently wake up throughout the night may also experience elevated cortisol levels.

Low amounts of exercise 

While regular exercise could ensure a person has enough cortisol present for healthy function, smaller amounts of exercise (regardless of intensity) may cause elevated cortisol levels in those who are out of shape, unhealthier, or dealing with obesity. However, for those who stick to a regimen and build tolerance, these levels may eventually even out and fall into the healthier ranges.

Self-imposed stress 

Stress doesn't always have to be an external factor to affect a person's mind and body. In addition to stressful situations in general, self-imposed stress may trigger the body’s stress response and cause chronically high cortisol levels in an individual. A negative mindset or dealing with emotions such as guilt, shame, or inadequacy can significantly impact an individual’s stress response and cortisol levels.

Unhealthy eating habits 

Unhealthy eating habits are also contributing factors to increased cortisol levels. Consuming excess sugar can cause an unhealthy amount of cortisol to be released into the body for those who may already be struggling with obesity. 

However, sugar may also reduce cortisol levels when consumed in response to stressful stimuli. This process is often why we feel comforted by "stress eating" some sweets. Excess consumption over a prolonged period can cause other health risks, however. 

How does cortisol affect the mind?

High concentrations or prolonged elevated levels of cortisol might have unpleasant effects on mental health. Constant or intense exposure can contribute to developing or worsening conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for instance. 

When the body is unable to "reset" after a period of intense stress, it may release cortisol in order to maintain a constant state of distress in an individual. Over time, this excess cortisol may lead to the development of depression in those who may already be susceptible to mental illness or other mental health concerns. Constant stress and unhealthy cortisol levels can also alter a person's DNA and put them at a significantly higher risk of psychological conditions.

Physical changes to the brain 

Elevated cortisol levels over an extended period can also cause physical changes in the brain. Chronic stress has been proven to cause changes within the brain and how it functions, leading to an overactive and consistent "fight or flight" response. 

Other physical effects include a decrease in one's learning ability and memory retention. Cortisol has also been shown in lab tests involving rats to damage and kill brain cells, cause premature brain aging, and decrease the rate at which the brain can produce new and healthy cells. All these factors contribute to conditions like anxiety, neurodegenerative disorders, depression, cognition problems, brain fog, and memory trouble.

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How does cortisol affect the body? Positive and negative effects

Cortisol often plays a significant role in the functions of a person's body. These include:

  • Controlling blood pressure 
  • Supplying high blood sugar when needed 
  • Managing your sleep and wake cycle 
  • Reducing inflammation 
  • Restoring balance after a fight or flight response 
  • Providing energy when confronting stressful events
  • Allowing one to think and process clearly 
  • Managing how the body processes and uses proteins, fats, and carbohydrates

Positive effects of cortisol 

The effects of cortisol release when experiencing eustress, or "positive stress," can positively affect the body. Some of these benefits include:

  • Improving mental and physical performance 
  • Preventing low blood pressure
  • Providing emotional balance and rational thinking 
  • Boosting feelings of motivation 
  • Allowing an individual to focus their energy positively 

Positive stress may occur in reaction to receiving a promotion at one's job, acquiring a new job, taking classes and furthering one's education, learning a new skill or hobby, or getting married and having children. These are positive stressors and may signal the same "stress" response within the body, but the effects are often short-term and beneficial.

Negative impacts of cortisol

When a high cortisol level is present or occurs in a negative context, it might present several problems. High levels of cortisol can lead to effects such as:

  • Digestive troubles
  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with concentration
  • Impaired memory 
  • Headaches 
  • Heart disease 
  • Depression 
  • Muscle weakness
  • Anxiety 
  • Sleep issues
  • Weight gain 

For people with a uterus, cortisol may affect the menstrual cycle and libido. In severe cases, the overproduction of cortisol can lead to a condition called "Cushing’s syndrome." Variations of this syndrome can also occur in specific medical situations. For example, if someone has a pituitary tumor that is causing them to produce too much cortisol, they may develop a form of Cushing’s syndrome known as Cushing’s disease.

Getty/AnnaStills
Stress can raise cortisol levels in the body

Treatment for high cortisol

While the parasympathetic nervous system should help slow the stress response and cause cortisol levels to decline in the short term, it's possible for them to remain elevated even after a stressful incident. In these cases, there are ways to decrease stress and lower cortisol levels for those with regularly high-stress levels. Reducing stress may involve lifestyle changes such as getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. Meditation and relaxation exercises are highly effective in reducing short-term stress and helping an individual get back to feeling healthy. 

For others with more significant stress-causing concerns, may need to make more significant changes, such as changing jobs, removing themselves from an unhealthy relationship, or seeking professional help to assist them in overcoming some of the stressful factors present in their lives. 

People with too much cortisol may also want to engage in some self-care, taking time to help others, caring for their pets, or taking herbal supplements such as fish oil. In severe cases, such as Cushing syndrome and Addison's disease, medical treatment and intervention might be necessary to return the body to a healthier state.

Counseling for high-stress levels 

Stress can take a toll on the body and mind. If you're under a lot of stress or feel like some of the symptoms or conditions above may be relative to your current health concerns, consider reaching out to a trusted physician or mental health professional for an assessment.

One of the common barriers to treatment for individuals experiencing copious amounts of stress is finding the time for an appointment. Speaking to a trained mental health therapist is often more convenient with online therapy. You can schedule a time that meets your needs and talk to a counselor without leaving your house. A recent study showed that brief online sessions using therapeutic methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) reduced stress levels in some individuals.

If you're interested in trying an internet-based modality, consider signing up for a platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. Once you sign up, you'll be matched with a therapist based on your personal preferences and treatment goals. 

Takeaway

Stress can significantly impact the mind and body, including memory, mental health, and immune response. If you're experiencing acute stress, consider reaching out to a counselor to develop treatment goals and find stress management techniques that work for you.  
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