All About Cortisol!

Cortisol is often called the 'stress hormone' because its levels rise following emotional and physical stress. Learn more about this hormone.

What is cortisol? Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It is often called the "stress hormone" because its levels rise following emotional and physical stress. This hormone is more than just a simple indicator of stress levels; it's also necessary for the functioning of almost every part of the human body. Deficiencies or excesses of this crucial hormone can lead to various physical symptoms and disease states.

Common Cortisol Raising Triggers

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • Arguing with family members or people in general
  • Arriving late to work
  • Getting over anxious about an upcoming exam
  • Over-exercising
  • Physically demanding jobs
  • Worrying about your next meal
  • Illness
  • Temperature Extremes

These are all situations in which your body is stressed either physically or emotionally and causes it to release "more than necessary" amounts of this catabolic hormone. Cortisol levels in normal individuals are higher in the morning from 6-8 am and lowest around midnight.

Background Information

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands, which are small glands adjacent to the kidneys. Cortisol's most important roles in the human body are regulating blood pressure and cardiovascular function. It also regulates the body's use of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Cortisol's excretion increases when physical or psychological stress in placed on the body.

Once cortisol is secreted, it causes a breakdown of muscle protein, leading to the release of amino acids into the bloodstream. After this process occurs, the amino acids are immediately used by the liver to synthesize glucose for energy. This raises the blood sugar level so more glucose will be available for the brain as energy. At the same time, other tissues in the body decrease their use of glucose as fuel. Cortisol also causes the release of fatty acids, an energy source from fat cells, to be used by the muscles. These two energy-directing processes prepare the person for the situation that is stressing them and also gives the brain an adequate amount of energy sources.

The body contains a complex feedback system for controlling cortisol secretion and regulating the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream. The pituitary gland is a small gland at the base of the brain. This gland makes and secretes a hormone known adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH). The secretion of ACTH gives a signal to the adrenal glands to increase cortisol production and excretion. After this process, the pituitary receives signals from the hypothalamus of the brain in the form of the corticotrophin-releasing hormone, CRH.

This signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH. The levels of the regulatory hormones ACTH and CRH increase following a stressful event, causing an immediate rise in cortisol levels. When cortisol is present in sufficient (or excess) amounts, a negative feedback system operates on the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which alerts these areas to reduce the output of ACTH and CRH in accordance with each other. This takes place in order to reduce cortisol secretion when excess levels are present.

Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Certain drugs, including the diuretic spironolactone and estrogen hormone therapy, can lead to increased cortisol levels. Low cortisol levels can be caused from drug therapy with androgens or the anti-seizure medication phenytoin. Women in their last term of their pregnancy and highly trained athletes can have higher-than-average cortisol levels.

How Cortisol Levels Affect Bodybuilders


Do You Think You Often Have Higher Than Average Cortisol Levels?

Not Sure.

As you all have read by now, cortisol is a catabolic hormone. High levels of cortisol can change the body from an anabolic (muscle building) to a catabolic (muscle losing) state. To keep cortisol levels low, you have to keep yourself in a positive mood. Try not to get stressed out over things that can be accomplished without needing to worry. Also, knowing your body well enough can also help you in the battle against high cortisol levels. Be smart when working out or working at a physically active job. Know how your body reacts to certain situations.

Lee Haney used to visualize his muscles becoming greater and bigger. He used to say that your body could never go where your mind has never been. Throughout his successful bodybuilding career, Lee praised visualization for much of his is triumph in the sport. Visualizing his body becoming better could have created lower cortisol levels in his body. When you are visualizing and imagining your muscles expanding, your mind is at ease. Your body is unstressed and is even more relaxed than usual.

How To Lower Your Cortisol Levels

Many of you are probably asking yourself how you can lower your cortisol levels. There are many different ways, ranging from coping with stressful events better to taking medicine to fight high cortisol levels. Personally, I would recommend fighting your cortisol levels without having to use medication. If you think your cortisol levels are too high, you should get them checked by your doctor and take actions from there.

For most of us though, high cortisol levels are present in our bodies from the stress that we place on ourselves. To lower your cortisol levels, you need to lower your stress. If you are one of those people who always gets stressed out over things, you should ask yourself why you do it.

"Is it worth it in the end? How can being stressed out benefit you in any way?"

You should look at each situation as one that can be solved, and not over exaggerate the situation. If you have a physically demanding job, you could try to eat small snacks or meals throughout the day to give your body energy. Your body shouldn't have to rely on muscle tissue for energy. It should be running off the food that you eat.


Even though cortisol levels are not more important than diet and training, they should still be taken seriously. In the fight for muscle mass, every little thing helps. Lowering high cortisol levels will make your body less catabolic, causing your body to be in a more anabolic state.

  1. Stress Management with Melissa C. Stöppler, M.D.