Discovering Cortisol and How It Protects Your Body

Cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormone,” has been much maligned in the media recently.  There is quite a bit more to cortisol than the standard explanations everyone hears. Let’s explore how cortisol protects our body and what happens when the demand for cortisol becomes too high.


What is Cortisol?

When a stress signal is sent from the digestive tract to the brain, the brain then sends a signal to the adrenal glands located right on top of the kidneys.  The adrenal gland then produce stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine.


How Does Cortisol Work?

Cortisol’s primary role is to prime the body for intense, prolonged physical or mental activity. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response that allows a person to override their normal metabolic processes in a crisis.  It is a vital part of the body.

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone whose job is to break tissue down in response to current stress.  It stimulates gluconeogenesis which increases blood sugar so the cells have instant food. It also increases gastric acid secretion in order to maximize digestive efficiency, absorption of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from food so energy can be effectively delivered to the cells.

Cortisol regulates the potassium-sodium channels on the cell wall which regulates what can go in and out of the cells, and hence, can act like a powerful diuretic.  Indeed, this was likely its primary function, earlier in our evolutionary history. It plays a similar role in many fish species helping them to make use of the sodium from seawater.

Cortisol suppresses the immune system in order to increase the digestive metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates and suppresses inflammation.   It also increases blood pressure, decreases pain sensitivity, serotonin production, and bone formation.

Cortisol also facilitates the creation of brief, but extremely potent memories by heightening our memory and attention span in the moment of acute stress. These ‘flashbulb memories’ are highly vivid, often entailed with intense emotions. They help us to remember how to avoid dangers, if we should encounter similar conditions again.

Once the acute stress has resolved, cortisol levels return back to normal limits.  Cortisol regulates metabolism in conjunction to a person’s natural circadian rhythm. It is the main controller of keeping blood sugar at healthy levels, and, moderating the saline balance in the cells. This directly helps control blood pressure.  Cortisol plays a critical role during pregnancy and all stages of life.

If the demand for cortisol remain elevated for long periods of time, cortisol will now become deleterious. The brain will be asked to respond to high levels of chronic stress signals from the gut and cause an excess storage of high-resolution memories. The hippocampus in the brain will now become prematurely damaged, and eventually worn out from from overuse.  It will lead to a heightened sense of anxiety, mood disorders, sleep disruptions, and decrease one’s coping skills to change. The compromised immune system will cause illness, and difficulty healing from injuries.

With prolong demands for high levels of cortisol production, cortisol begins to damage most of the body.  The adrenal glands eventually burn out, and cannot keep up with this demand. Once low cortisol levels are detected in the blood, it is called hypoadrenalism (a.k.a., Addison’s disease).   Insufficient cortisol production is also damaging partially due to persistent electrolyte deficiencies and metabolic irregularities. It leads to extreme fatigue, weakness, heart palpitations, dizziness, depression, anxiety, nausea and other gastric distress, clumsiness, insomnia, and many other symptoms.


Managing Stress at Advanced Health

Managing stress is the best way to maintain healthy levels of cortisol in order to effectively protect your body. In most cases, the best option is to simply remove the stressful stimulus, but this may not always be possible for everyone. To mitigate the impact of stress, avoid intoxicants and stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, sugary drinks, and nicotine.  Remove items which are naturally acidic inside the stomach and take too long to digest. These items will include red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, fish, yeast (i.e., bread, Kombucha, overly fermented items), tomatoes, garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Shift a healthy diet full of vegetables, get plenty of sleep and exercise. Consider practicing relaxation techniques like meditation, deliberate breathing exercises, yoga, and so on.


Advanced Health’s integrative medical practitioners are uniquely positioned to help you better regulate your cortisol demands and take control over your stress. Make an appointment with Advanced Health today! We will check your cortisol levels, and make sure your body and mind return back to a healthy place.

Payal Bhandari M.D. Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is one of U.S.'s top leading integrative functional medical physicians and the founder of San Francisco' top ranked medical center, SF Advanced Health. Her well-experienced holistic healthcare team collaborates together to deliver whole-person personalized care and combines the best in Western and Eastern medicine. By being an expert of cell function, Dr. Bhandari defines the root cause of illness and is able to subside any disease within weeks to months. She specializes in cancer prevention and reversal, digestive & autoimmune disorders. Dr. Bhandari received her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology in 1997 and Doctor of Medicine degree in 2001 from West Virginia University. She the completed her Family Medicine residency in 2004 from the University of Massachusetts and joined a family medicine practice in 2005 which was eventually nationally recognized as San Francisco’s 1st patient-centered medical home. To learn more, go to

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