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

Updated December 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Most everyone has heard about the hormone, or "stress chemical," known as cortisol. It's often considered a bad thing since it’s one of the main chemicals released whenwe experience stress. However, this hormonedoes so much more than just signal a person's "fight or flight" instincts.

Stress and cortisol are a dangerous combination.

What Is Cortisol?

The adrenal glands in the human body may sound like they're strictly responsible for producing adrenaline, but theyactually produce numerous different hormones. These are hormones for controlling blood pressure, electrolyte balance, metabolism, and immune system suppression. One of the hormones produced by these two glands is the chemical known as cortisol.

Most of the cells within a person's body contain cortisol receptors. Thus, cortisol plays a significant role in numerousdifferent bodily functions. Cortisol is responsible for managing a person's metabolism, their blood sugar levels, and their blood pressure, for example. It also contributes to memory formation in individuals, and it assists in fetal development in the case of pregnant women. Cortisol is also capable of reducing inflammation within the body, hence corticosteroids, hydrocortisone, and other similar medications that contain cortisone (a very closely related chemical to cortisol) used for the treatment of certain injuries and inflammatory conditions.

What Activates The Release Of Cortisol In The Body?

Most people know that incidents of stress can cause the body to produce cortisol, but there are also other factors in a person's day-to-day life that may increase the levels of cortisol within the body.

lack of propersleep, particularly for individuals who sleep during the day rather than at night, has been linked to higher levels of cortisol compared to those who receive an appropriate amount of sleep at night or have more regular sleep schedules. As expected, those who experience insomnia or frequently wake throughout the night are also likely to have elevated levels of cortisol.

While exercise may produce a healthy amount of cortisol in the body for those who partake in it regularly and are in shape, even smaller amounts of exercise (regardless of intensity) may cause elevated cortisol levels in those who are out ofshape, unhealthier, or dealing with obesity. However, for those who stick to a reasonable regimen, these levels will eventually even out and fall into the healthier and more normal ranges.

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 can also trigger the release of higher amounts of cortisol in an individual. A negative mindset or dealing with emotions such as guilt, shame, or inadequacy has also been shown to have a significant impact on cortisol levels.

Unhealthy eating habits are also a contributing factor to increased cortisol levels. Consuming excess amounts of sugar can cause an unhealthy amount of cortisol to be released into the body, for instance, especially for those who may already be struggling with obesity. Oddly enough, though, sugar may also help to reduce the levels of cortisol in a person when consumed in response to stressful stimuli. This is often why we feel comforted by "stress eating" some sweets.Excess consumption over a prolonged period can be very detrimental to overall health, though.

How Does Cortisol Affect The Mind?

High concentrations or prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can have some unpleasant effects on a person's mind and mental health. Constant or intense exposure can contribute to the development or worsening of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance. When the body is unable to "reset" after a period of intense stress, and the excess release of cortisol maintains an ongoing state of distress in an individual, this can specifically lead to the development of depression in those who may already be susceptible to mental illness or other mental health concerns. Unhealthy levels of cortisol can also alter a person's DNA and put them at a significantly higher risk of psychological concerns over time.

Moreover, elevated levels of cortisol over an extended period can also cause physical changes to 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 aging of the brain, and decrease the rate at which the brain can produce healthy and new cells. All these factors contribute to conditions like anxiety, neurodegenerative disorders, depression, cognition problems, brain fog, and memory trouble.

How Does Cortisol Affect The Body? Positive And Negative Effects

Cortisol plays a significant role in many of the functions of a person's body. Some of these include controlling blood pressure, increasing blood sugar when needed, managing your sleep and wake cycle, reducing inflammation, restoring balance after a fight or flight response, providing energy when confronting a stressful situation (and allowing one to think and process things more clearly), and managing how the body processes and uses proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

The effects of cortisol release when experiencing eustress, or "positive stress," can also have positive effects on the body, though. Some of these benefits include improving mental and physical performance, providing emotional balance and rational thinking, boosting feelings of motivation, and allowing an individual to focus their energy positively. This can be in reaction to something such as receiving a promotion at one's job or 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 will signal the same "stress" response within the body, but the effects are short-term and often beneficial.

When too much cortisol is present though or occurring in a negative context, it can present several problems. High levels of cortisol can lead to effects such as digestive troubles, problems with concentration, impaired memory, headaches, heart disease, depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and even weight gain. For women, it can also have effects on their menstrual cycle and libido. In severe cases, the overproduction of cortisol can lead to a condition referred to as "Cushing syndrome."

Treatment For High Cortisol

Stress and cortisol are a dangerous combination.

For those with regularly high stress levels, there are multiple ways to decrease stress and lower cortisol levels. Sometimes this may just 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 like their normal selves sooner.

For others with more significant stress-causing concerns, they may need to make bigger 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. A person can also help to lower their stress levels by indulging in self-care, taking time to help others, caring for their pets, or taking herbal supplements such as fish oil or ashwagandha, for example.

In severe cases such as Cushing syndrome and Addison's disease, medical treatment and intervention will be necessary to return the body to a healthier state.


Stress can take a toll on both 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.

It’s no surprise that busy people are often the most stressed out. One of the common barriers to treatment for individuals experiencing copious amounts of stress is finding the time for an appointment. With online therapy, speaking to a trained mental health therapist is considerably more convenient. You can schedule a time that meets your needs, and talk to a counselor without even leaving your house.

Of course, you don’t want to waste time on a treatment protocol that doesn’t work. A recent study showed that even brief online sessions using therapeutic methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) reduced stress levels in some individuals.

BetterHelp counselors are trained in contemporary therapies like CBT and ACT. Once you sign up, you’ll be matched with a therapist based on your personal goals and concerns. Most individuals are matched within 24 to 48 hours. Get started toward a less stressful life right away.

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