Some people refer to cortisol as the stress hormone. The body produces cortisol to prepare the body to respond to a perceived danger or stressful situation.

When facing sudden stress, the body enters an alarm reaction stage called the fight-or-flight response. This triggers a cascade of events to enable a person to act quickly.

Stress raises the cortisol level in the body, triggering bodily changes that enable a person to react to the stressor.

This article explores the connection between cortisol levels and stress. It also discusses symptoms and treatment of high cortisol levels and how to manage stress.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the cortex of the adrenal glands. It is commonly known as the stress hormone.

Cortisol can affect nearly every organ in the body. This is because almost every cell has receptors for cortisol and other glucocorticoids.

Cortisol performs the following functions:

Cortisol follows a circadian rhythm. A person’s cortisol level is generally higher in the early morning and lower late at night.

When a person faces an unusual or unexpected stressor, the body’s sympathetic nervous system activates. This leads to a cascade of hormonal and other responses to help the body react to the stressor.

The amygdala, the brain region that processes emotions such as fear and emotional stimuli, sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus during a stressful situation. In turn, the hypothalamus activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which signals the adrenal gland to produce cortisol, causing cortisol levels to rise.

A 2018 study showed that extreme stress resulted in a nine-fold increase in cortisol compared with in relaxed periods.

Learn more about how stress affects the body.

Cushing’s syndrome occurs when the body has a high cortisol level for an extended period. Its symptoms depend on how elevated the cortisol level is.

Common signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:

While the body can typically manage short-term stress effectively, the long-term activation of the body’s stress response and exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can have negative effects. These effects include:

A 2020 study found that psychological stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Another study found that job-related stress also increases this risk.

Chronic stress may promote cancer development. It may also increase a person’s resistance to chemotherapy and affect the spread of cancer.

Stress can also cause structural changes in the brain, negatively affecting memory, cognition, and learning.

The treatment for high cortisol depends on its cause. For example, if it is due to the long-term use of glucocorticoids to treat a different condition, the doctor may change the dose or prescribe a non-glucocorticoid medication.

If the condition is due to a tumor, possible treatments include:

  • radiation
  • chemotherapy
  • cortisol-reducing medications

Below are some tips to help manage stress:

A person may wish to contact a mental health professional if they feel they need more help.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about stress and cortisol.

How does high cortisol stress feel?

Stress causes blood cortisol to rise, causing a fight-or-flight response. This may cause a person to experience:

Is cortisol high or low when a person experiences stress?

Blood cortisol levels rise in response to perceived danger or stress.

Stress can cause many changes in the body. It can cause a quick rise in cortisol, which can help a person react to immediate danger. However, if cortisol levels remain high for prolonged periods, it can cause weight gain, hypertension, and diabetes.

To reduce stress, a person may wish to try lifestyle practices such as regular exercise, balanced eating, and sleep hygiene. A person can also seek help from a mental health professional if needed.