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Understanding Cortisol: The Stress Hormone's Role in Your Body

July 5th, 2024 | 6 min. read

Understanding Cortisol: The Stress Hormone's Role in Your Body
Jade Hutcheson

Jade Hutcheson

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // Herman and Wallace Pelvic Floor Level 1 Certified // EW Motion Therapy Meadowbrook/280

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Cortisol, often referred to as the "stress hormone," plays a pivotal role in the body's ability to manage stress and maintain overall health. While its name might imply negativity, cortisol is essential for various bodily functions. Regular physical activity is a great way to maintain healthy cortisol levels - we love helping our clients reduce pain and improve mobility so they can maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Even if you decide that our services don’t fit your needs, you can still read this article as we explore what cortisol is, its primary purpose, factors that influence its levels, the consequences of elevated cortisol, and strategies to maintain healthy cortisol levels.


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What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located atop the kidneys. It is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration. Cortisol is part of the body's endocrine system and is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This hormone follows a diurnal rhythm, meaning its levels fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the early morning and gradually declining as the day progresses.


The many purposes of cortisol

Cortisol serves several crucial functions in the body, including:


Regulating metabolism

Cortisol helps regulate metabolism by influencing how the body converts proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into energy. This process ensures the body has sufficient energy to handle stress and perform daily activities.


Reducing inflammation

Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties, which help regulate the immune system's response. It controls inflammation and reduces the risk of autoimmune reactions.


Managing stress response

Cortisol is integral to the body's fight-or-flight response. When you encounter a stressful situation, cortisol levels rise, providing the energy and alertness needed to cope with the challenge.


Maintaining blood pressure

Cortisol helps maintain cardiovascular function and blood pressure. It ensures that blood vessels function properly and respond appropriately to changes in stress levels.


Factors that influence cortisol levels

Cortisol levels can be influenced by a variety of factors. Understanding these can help in managing and maintaining healthy levels.


  1. Stress: Both acute and chronic stress can significantly impact cortisol levels. Acute stress leads to a temporary spike, while chronic stress can cause consistently elevated levels.
  2. Sleep patterns: Disrupted sleep or lack of sleep can alter the normal diurnal rhythm of cortisol, often leading to higher levels.
  3. Physical activity: Moderate exercise can help regulate cortisol levels, but excessive or intense physical activity may increase them.
  4. Diet: Certain dietary habits, such as high sugar intake, can lead to increased cortisol levels. Conversely, a balanced diet with adequate nutrients can help maintain optimal levels.
  5. Caffeine intake: High caffeine consumption is associated with elevated cortisol levels, especially when consumed in large quantities over short periods.


Consequences of elevated cortisol levels

While cortisol is essential for normal bodily functions, chronically high levels can adversely affect health. Some of the potential consequences include:


  1. Weight gain: High cortisol levels are linked to increased appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods, leading to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.
  2. Impaired cognitive function: Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can affect brain function, leading to memory impairment and difficulty concentrating.
  3. Increased risk of chronic diseases: Elevated cortisol levels are associated with a higher risk of developing conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  4. Suppressed immune function: Chronic high cortisol can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases.
  5. Mood disorders: High cortisol levels are linked to mood swings, anxiety, and depression.


How cortisol affects different people

Cortisol can affect individuals differently based on their lifestyle, age, and specific circumstances. Let's explore how cortisol impacts various groups:



Athletes often experience fluctuations in cortisol levels due to their high levels of physical activity. Intense training can lead to increased cortisol, which helps manage the physical stress of exercise. However, chronic overtraining without adequate recovery can result in consistently high cortisol levels, leading to fatigue, decreased performance, and a higher risk of injuries. Athletes must balance training with proper rest and recovery to maintain healthy cortisol levels.


The elderly

As people age, their bodies may become less efficient at regulating cortisol levels. The elderly often experience higher baseline levels of cortisol, which can contribute to age-related health issues such as cognitive decline, increased blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. Managing stress, ensuring adequate sleep, and engaging in regular, moderate physical activity can help older adults maintain healthy cortisol levels.


People with chronic illnesses

Individuals with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, hormone dysfunction, or autoimmune conditions, often have higher cortisol levels due to the constant physiological stress their bodies endure. Elevated cortisol can exacerbate these conditions, leading to further complications. Managing chronic illness through proper medical treatment, lifestyle changes, and stress-reduction techniques is crucial for controlling cortisol levels.


Office workers

People with high-stress jobs, such as office workers, may experience elevated cortisol levels due to constant mental and emotional stress. Long hours, tight deadlines, and a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to chronic stress and high cortisol. Incorporating stress management practices, such as mindfulness, regular breaks, and physical activity, can help mitigate these effects.



Students, particularly those in high-pressure academic environments, often experience stress that can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Exam periods, heavy coursework, and the pressure to perform can impact cortisol regulation. Encouraging healthy study habits, regular exercise, and relaxation techniques can help students manage stress and maintain balanced cortisol levels.


Maintaining healthy cortisol levels

Maintaining healthy cortisol levels is crucial for overall well-being. Here are some strategies to help manage and regulate cortisol levels effectively:


  1. Stress management techniques: Engage in activities that reduce stress, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can also be highly beneficial.
  2. Regular physical activity: Incorporate moderate exercise into your routine. Activities like walking, swimming, and cycling can help regulate cortisol levels without causing excessive spikes. Prioritizing rest days and recovery is also vital. 
  3. Healthy diet: Adopt a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Avoid excessive sugar and processed foods, and consider incorporating foods known to reduce cortisol levels, such as dark chocolate, green tea, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Adequate sleep: Ensure you get enough restful sleep each night. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep to help maintain a healthy cortisol rhythm.
  5. Limit caffeine and alcohol: Moderate your intake of caffeine and alcohol, as both can influence cortisol levels. Opt for herbal teas and water as healthier alternatives.
  6. Social support: Maintain strong social connections. Spending time with loved ones and participating in social activities can help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.


Cortisol is a vital hormone that helps the body respond to stress and maintain overall health. Understanding its role, the factors that influence its levels, and the potential consequences of elevated cortisol is crucial for managing stress and promoting well-being. You can maintain healthy cortisol levels and support your body's natural stress response by adopting healthy lifestyle practices, such as stress management techniques, regular physical activity, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and social support. Our ultimate goal at EW Motion Therapy is to help all our clients work toward their wellness goals so they can continue the activities they love. To learn which of our programs might best fit your needs, click the button below to answer the questions in our Program Match Tool.


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