What Is Cortisol?

Most people are familiar with hormones like estrogen and testosterone, but the body produces a lot of hormones that aren’t as well-known. One of them is cortisol. What is cortisol? The definition of cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It helps regulate a person’s motivation, mood, fear, and fight-or-flight response.

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What Is Cortisol?

The cortisol stress hormone does more than just control stress response. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which are small glands at the top of the kidneys. Cortisol levels fluctuate depending on a person’s circumstances. Stress causes the body to produce an abundance of cortisol, which can slow some bodily functions. Stress may adversely affect a person’s immune system, digestive system, or reproductive system. For some people, a cortisol increase can even cause a temporary halt in growth.

While the adrenal glands produce the cortisol stress hormone, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in the brain sense the blood’s cortisol levels and can adjust them.

Cortisol has other functions besides stress management, including:

  • Inhibiting inflammation
  • Controlling sleep-wake cycles
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Increasing blood sugar as needed
  • Boosting energy during a stressful period
  • Managing the body’s use of protein, fat, and carbohydrates

Cortisol is a multitasking hormone that’s integral to overall health. To flourish, your body needs to have the right cortisol level for specific circumstances.

Too Much or Too Little Cortisol

Both overproduction and underproduction of cortisol can be harmful. Chronic stress keeps cortisol levels continuously high, which can cause depression, anxiety, headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, heart disease, weight gain, and even memory loss.

A lack or excess of cortisol is associated with specific diseases. Cushing’s disease develops when a tumor or mass in the adrenal or pituitary glands generates cortisol overproduction. A person with Cushing’s disease may gain weight rapidly, bruise easily, develop diabetes, or experience muscle weakness.

Too little cortisol could indicate Addison’s disease. The disease can cause fatigue and weakness, weight loss, skin changes, appetite loss, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms often appear slowly.

Cortisol can affect many parts and systems in the body. If you have any questions about the definition of cortisol or if you have a cortisol-related health issue, contact your UPMC doctor. You can find a UPMC doctor by calling 1-800-533-UPMC.

About UPMC

Based in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and more than 700 doctor’s offices and outpatient centers. Our expert physicians are among the leaders in their fields, and we are leaders in groundbreaking research and treatment breakthroughs. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside ranks as “One of America’s Best Hospitals” and No. 1 in Pennsylvania in U.S. News & World Report’s listings.