Updated: 2021, May 9

Cortisol: How It Is Created, What It Does, (The Good & Bad)

Cortisol is important for proper body functioning but needs to be balanced.

Did you know that stress can literally throw your hormones off balance? That’s right! Stress can literally make your hormones go all whacky!

Cortisol: How It Is Created, What It Does, (The Good & Bad)
Cortisol is often called the "stress hormone" because of its connection to the stress response. Shutterstock Images

When we get stressed a part of our brain called the Amygdala says “Oh my gosh! We’re freaked out right now! Do something quick!”.

This response from the Amygdala[1] triggers the Endocrine system, and that “do something quick!” message is passed from the Amygdala to the Pituitary Gland, then to the Hypothalamus and then to the Adrenal Glands which go into production mode, stop creating all other hormones and begin mass producing a hormone called Cortisol[2].

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is like a wonder drug. Cortisol makes you think smarter, run faster and jumps higher than all the other kids. It helps your lungs inhale more oxygen and your heart beat faster.

Cortisol even helps more oxygen to get into your blood so that whether you’re fighting or “flighting” you can live to see tomorrow and tell everyone about the crazy experience.

You’re thinking “Well, this is amazing! Why is this a bad thing?” As long as you just ran into a Grizzly bear, it isn’t a bad thing at all! In that situation, it’s a VERY good thing.

However, I would bet money that you didn’t just run into a Grizzly bear. Instead, you’re just sitting at your desk and your boss walked by and saw that you’re on the internet reading articles about hormone imbalances again. “They don’t pay you to research health stuff you know! Get back to work!”

For those of you who don’t have to get back to work I’ll explain why Cortisol in your body for prolonged periods of time is bad; when Cortisol is in our body it shuts down all of our secondary functions.

So things like procreation, digestion, healing, and repair all stop working. Why? Because you have to run away from that big furry Grizzly bear. You don’t need to digest your lunch while you’re running away, you just need to run away. Again, this is an amazing and beautiful thing if you’re running away from a Grizzly bear.

However, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, your alarm went off this morning jolting you out of sleep, you gobbled down a pop tart this morning while pulling on your pants yelling “I’m late! I’m late!”, you’re stuck in traffic honking angry little horns, you hate your job, you hate your boss more, and your coworker’s laugh makes your jaw set a little crooked, you spend your lunch hour doing chores that you can’t do later, you spend the afternoon counting down the seconds to when you rush home, throw together another meal and collapse on the couch for some chill time, just to drag yourself off to bed so you can do it all again tomorrow.

Somewhere in all this mess, you have to keep your house clean, mow the lawn, take out the trash, exercise, spend quality time with loved ones, and participate in social functions that you really don’t have time for.

Amidst all of this stress, your body THINKS it’s running from the large furry Grizzly bear, and it shuts down all the making of other hormones, your digestion, your awesome baby making skills, your healing, your immune system, etc.


High cortisol may be referred to as Cushing syndrome. Shutterstock Images

So you see, you’re just living life, a crazy, stressful, hectic life, and your brain is yelling “Oh my gosh! Something is wrong!” because we weren’t meant to live these kinds of lifestyles.

Our body’s need downtime, we need to be outside more, we need to eat better food, we need to stop guilting and hating on ourselves and each other, we need to work with people we enjoy being around, we need to have control over our lives.

Never before in the history of man have we lived the way we do now. In the past our purpose was to hunt or farm for our food, build shelter and sew clothes.

Today, we work jobs that we hate so that we can pay someone else to grow our food, build our shelter and sew our clothes and it’s killing us. We can’t digest our food, reproduce, heal or repair our bodies and our immune systems are shot.

What Does too Much Cortisol Look Like?

So, what does too much Cortisol look like? The following are a list of symptoms of having a high Cortisol imbalance. Check off any symptoms you have and then count how many you checked:

  • Tired, but wired
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Breakthrough Bleeding[3]
  • More Frequent Periods
  • Rushing from one task to the next
  • Anxiety, Nervousness
  • Feeling Distracted and not present
  • High Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar
  • Decreased Fertility

1-2: Minor: Way to go! You might have too much Cortisol, but you probably know the reasons for the 2 boxes you checked. If so try to correct those issues in your life.

3-6: Cortisol Imbalance: Hmmm, it looks like you probably have too much Cortisol in your body.

7-9: Severe Cortisol Imbalance: Woah! Something is definitely going on!

10: Danger: Oh, no! Did you check every single box? You need a vacation! Stat! And not this 3-day weekend stuff, you need some serious downtime!

No matter what category you ended up in, there’s no reason to panic. This can be corrected and there are lots of options available to you. We’ll address those issues in a minute.


Long term Cortisol Imbalance increases the risk of diseases in the body. Livewelltesting Images

What Does too little Cortisol Look Like?

After you’ve had prolonged stress for months or even years your Adrenal Glands begin to say “I give up” and refuse to create more cortisol. Up until this point you’ve been living with too much Cortisol in your body, now that your Adrenals have thrown up their hands and said “no more” your body will enter a state that has too little cortisol.

Because you need a very little bit of cortisol to get out of bed in the morning and feel good about the day ahead this will change your symptoms to the following list. See how many of the following you have:

  • Fatigue
  • Burned out Feeling
  • Difficulty Staying Asleep
  • Tough Time getting up
  • Not Feeling Rested after sleep
  • Dizzy when you stand up
  • Low Blood Pressure
  • Decreased Stress Tolerance
  • Crying for no reason
  • Feeling Negative and Unable to cope

1-2: Minor: Way to go! Maybe you have too little cortisol or maybe you just slept poorly last night. Try to keep track of what’s going on to make sure it’s not a trend.

3-6: Cortisol Imbalance: You probably have too little Cortisol in your body.

7-9: Severe Cortisol Imbalance: Yep, your adrenals are tired!

10: Danger: You must be completely exhausted ALL THE TIME!!

What if I Got Both?

If you checked off a moderate amount of both the high and low cortisol symptoms, believe it or not, that’s possible too! After a while your body begins to work like a pendulum swinging back and forth.

You push your body and it gives you cortisol and then it gets tired and stops creating it. So, you go get a cup of coffee which pushes your body into producing more cortisol, and then it shuts off again leading to an afternoon crash.

So you go running which makes your body think you’re running from that Grizzly bear again and your Adrenal Glands say “Okay people! This is the real thing!” and they start producing cortisol again.

Back and forth your body tries to respond, and you get a mixture of both. Because of this, it’s totally possible to have both too much and too little Cortisol. The trick is to fix the imbalance.

How Do I Fix this Cortisol Imbalance?

Cortisol Imbalance

Learn how to lower high cortisol levels naturally to bring better balance to your body. Shutterstock Images

Believe it or not, the cure for fixing high Cortisol is the same for low cortisol. The cure? EXTREME self-care. When I say extreme, I’m not just talking about bubble baths and movie time.

Although those are very important elements to self-care and I recommend you start there. I’m also talking about getting outside and earthing more, meditating, doing things you enjoy, creating things, finding a hobby you love.

Look at your life and try to figure out the part that’s driving you crazy. Eat more whole foods and change your exercise regime to things like yoga and tai chi. Above and beyond all else, be really gentle with yourself.

Build boundaries, cut out toxic people and quit your job. Self Care starts with a bubble bath and ends with you living the lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.

It might take months, it might take years, but figure out what you want and make that happen. Figure out what is causing all this stress in your life and cut out those things. After a while, you’ll find you’re not quite as stressed as you used to be.

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Nicole Hegstad, CHC

Nicole Hegstad is a Fertility Advocate. She helps women, who are struggling to get pregnant, balance their hormones. She became a certi

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