Cortisol & Stress: How Cortisol Affects Your Body – Dr. Sarah Kent |ND

Posted 8 years ago on

Cortisol – this superstar hormone is made by the adrenal glands and is released when stress, in particular long-term stress is registered within your body.  Cortisol is part of the stress hormone team housed by the adrenal glands and when it steps up to the plate this heavy hitter will take care of business by making sure you have adequate energy and focus for activity. By decreasing other energy dense processes like inflammation and bone formation and increasing the effectives of hormones like adrenalin, it could be said you are left with more resources to overcome whatever stress faces you.  But are you?

Stress is essentially a demand that is put on the body / mind. It can vary in intensity, have many origins (physical, mental, emotional & environmental) and is often cumulative.  It doesn’t even have to be real.  If you’ve imagined and believe something as stress its as good as real, the same hormonal response will follow as if it were real.

Once your body recognizes the demand it must assess it, prioritize it and ideally mount a response with which to deal with it.  Most importantly it must then rest so it can do it again when needed. The issue is that rest and resetting the stress response isn’t a typical practice.  This means that stress responses and their actions are being continually carried out without clearance of a previous stress response.  This means that your adrenals are constantly calling for the big slugger cortisol to hit it out of the park which over time may lead to its’ exhaustion and basically an impaired stress response team.

The response & adaptation to stress both physiologically (body) and psychologically (mind) was first conceptualized by Hans Selye (1907- 1982), a Hungarian endocrinologist.  He explained a three stage response to stress called the General Adaptation Syndrome. The stages being: 1 alarm, 2 resistance, 3 exhaustion with subsequent physiologic effects occurring at each stage.  Today we still use this model to understand where and how people are adapting to stress, what their symptoms are and to inform specific treatment to help support a healthier stress response.


What are some long term effects of a dysfunctional stress response, particularly that for which cortisol responses are impaired?  It may lead to one or more of the following symptoms:

-decreased metabolic rate with its impact on thyroid hormones (thyroid hormones help manage metabolism)

-increased desire for high caloric foods (carbs & fats) & decreases hormones responsible for making you feel full

-increases abdominal fat stores

-blood sugar imbalances leading to irritability, lightheadedness, shakiness etc.

-decrease muscle mass as it looks to lean muscle as fuel source

-decreases effects of hormones that help to repair and restore tissue

-decreases insulin sensitivity (hallmark of blood sugar dysfunction and type 2 diabetes)

-sleep disturbances

-decreases in testosterone and therefore libido

-chronic colds and flues or not being able to get a cold or flue


So what can be done about this?
To get to the root of the problem, its best to take a look at your stresses and how you are handling them.

1)Make a list of the stresses you face, be as detailed as possible.  On a separate piece of paper, indicate the priorities in your life in different section on the paper (family, health, friends, work, finances, vacation etc).  Under those headings, transfer the stresses to the appropriate column or section.  This will give you a visual of where your stresses are coming from and help you to see where you might need to focus your priorities. Based on what you identified as your priorities, list the stressors in that priority, as the sequence by which you will deal with them.

2) Write down the ways in which you deal with stress. Do you want to curl up under your covers and sleep the issues away?  Do you eat?  Do you exercise?  Do you get angry?  Do you replay lists over and over in you head? Knowing how you deal with stress, especially if its not helpful will help you to notice when you are slipping into these patterns and intervene before unhealthy habits take over. For intervention strategies see  the following points.

3) No monkey mind! Obsessing and continually mulling over everything you need, want & should do is in fact causing a host of stress responses, regardless of what you are thinking.  Quiet your mind by uni-tasking.  Yes that’s correct.  Multi tasking has been shown to decrease willpower and lead to less productivity overall.  Pick a task and take it to completion, this will allow you to hit the release & rest phase of stress that is so important to facing your next stress which is likely just around the corner.

4) Further to the monkey mind, try to meditate.  Even in tiny bits, clearing the mind and breathing deeply has irrefutable effects on better stress coping ability and overall sense of well being.  Focus exclusively on your breath as you breath in for 3 sec and out for 6 seconds. Do this 5 times in a row whenever you think of it throughout the day or feeling yourself becoming overwhelmed.

5) Test your cortisol levels, see where indeed they are and work with your naturopathic doctor towards a comprehensive plan to support and restore your cortisol & adrenal health.


Just so we are clear, stress is a wonderful thing.  Its the consequence of interacting with our environment.  When experienced in the right amount and we feel capable of meeting its needs, dealing with it and resting, we become stronger and healthier and thus happier. When stress, in large singular events or exhaustive small cumulative impacts overwhelms us and depletes us we need to step back and take a look at host of reasons why this might be. Like the heavy hitter cortisol, its has its place as part of a team but should not be exhausted rather used strategically for best health.



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Kumar, Abbas, Fausto, Mitchell. Robbins Basic Pathology 8th Edition. Saunders Elsevier; Philadelphia. 2007’s_stress_theory.html