A Basic Understanding of the Hormone Cortisol

A Basic Understanding of the Hormone Cortisol

I hope that gives you an insight into cortisol and how it affects the body. I will be covering other hormones in later articles.


 In this modern age it is safe to say that you know someone who appears to be stressed all of the time. That very person might actually be you! Between managing jobs, lives, relationships, and devices, we’re living overstimulated, hectic, highly strung lives. Our to-do lists never seem to end, and there always seems to be a million and one things to do. All of this eventually catches up with us at at some point. In the end we need to take a break and try and reset ourselves to the time before life was stressful. Now this may seem difficult however there is plenty you can do about it.

First of all we need to understand exactly what are hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers that are created in the endocrine glands, like cortisol in the adrenals, estrogen in the ovaries, testosterone in the gonads, vitamin D in the kidneys, T-3 and T-4 in the thyroid and insulin in the pancreas, just to name a few. These messengers control most major bodily functions such as hunger, reproduction, digestion, emotions and mood. The endocrine system is highly complex and interconnected.


So for today lets just concentrate on cortisol. This is best known as the stress hormone, and its one of the most influential compounds the body produces. Cortisol is a chemical made by the adrenal glands. Almost every cell in the body contains a cortisol receptor, therefore almost every cell can be influenced by the release of cortisol. Cortisol is necessary for many bodily functions such as controlling inflammation, blood sugar and metabolism, but what it’s most known for is activating the fight-or-flight response which is the body’s ability to cope with stress by increasing heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.


What is not well known is the important fact that cortisol is responsible for our sleep/wake patterns. Our cortisol levels starts to increase at around 4am everyday and it is at its highest between around 6 to 8 am. It happens this way so that we can meet the demands placed upon us for the day ahead. Throughout evolution and dating back to caveman times humans lived on a daily basis which started with hunting for food with the possibility of being eaten by predators. This cortisol allows us to be sharp and prepared. It then gradually decreases throughout the day to reach its lowest point at around 10pm in preparation for sleep. As the cortisol decreases hormones such as HGH, Testosterone and Melatonin start to be released in order to prepare us for sleep, healing, growth and repair. This pattern is known as the circadian rhythm which I’m sure you’ve heard of.

Now sticking to this rhythm is essential for a long and healthy life. It has been clinically proven that night workers live a shorter life due to living outside of their circadian rhythm and that too much sleep can also be bad for us. To stick to our circadian rhythm we generally need to be asleep by around 10pm and awake between around 6 and 8 am.

You will have noticed that when you travel to the other side of the world you get what is known as ‘jet lag’ which usually results in you either not being able to get to sleep or being awake at 3 o clock in the morning. The reason this happens is because your circadian rhythm is out of sync. Your body ends up releasing cortisol at 4 am as usual except this was the 4 am when you was back in the UK. Therefore with large amounts of cortisol in the system your body thinks you should be up and awake. The key to beating jet lag is to reset your circadian rhythm ASAP. Supplementing with Melatonin and grounding with help you do this. When you arrive at your destination as quick as you can walk barefoot on the grass for 20 minutes. This helps earth your body and reset it.

Though cortisol gets a bad rep, it’s actually really important for our bodies. The problem arises when cortisol is not in balance and our body has to overcompensate to try and achieve this.

When we have high levels of cortisol in our system, we can turn into a frazzled, anxiety-ridden mess. When unbalanced cortisol levels are left untreated, it can wreak havoc on our health with symptoms like anxiety, depression, insomnia, adrenal fatigue, weight gain, IBS, blood sugar issues, poor gut health, and skipped menstrual periods; to name just a few.

Hence, why it’s very important for us to learn how to effectively manage our cortisol levels and reduce chronic stress. So now lets look at the ways we can do this.


Chronic elevated cortisol levels take time and effort to bring back into balance, and are almost always treated with lifestyle changes. Even though we may not be able to directly control things that stress us out, we can develop coping mechanisms that help us feel a sense of calm and balance. Managing stress and anxiety in today’s world is not an easy task, incorporating small changes into your lifestyle will go a long way to support your endocrine system.


DIET- Cleaning up your diet is the first step to managing cortisol levels. A healthy diet brimming with fruits, vegetables, fibre, healthy fats and proteins provides the required vitamins and minerals needed to address high cortisol levels. Reduce sugar intake, starchy processed foods, and stimulators like caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine after 12pm will offset your circadian rhythm making it start later.


EXERCISE- Exercising regularly is very important to manage stress and anxiety. Try free flowing movement and stretching type exercises like yoga, pilates, tai chi but really any exercise is key to managing stress.

SLEEP- Maintain a regular sleep pattern with a bedtime between 10-11 pm. This allows cortisol levels to drop to an optimal level and ensures quality sleep throughout the night. Having trouble falling asleep? I will be writing an article in the near future which will cover how to bio hack quality sleep.


RELAX- Find an active relaxation technique that works for you — deep breathing, a leisure walk or stroll, meditation, yoga. Sometimes just getting outdoors with a change of scenery is enough! Epsom salts baths are wonderful for relaxing, as is using essential oils — find something that contains lavender as it’s a herb known for invoking calm and relaxation.


TAKE ADAPTOGENIC HERBS- Only take for 6 weeks each max.

Adaptogen                              Potential Benefit

American Ginseng                       Boots memory and reaction time

Ashwagandha                              Reduces stress and anxiety

Astragalus                            Combats fatigue

Cordyceps                            Boosts stamina

Goji Berry                            Boosts energy and performance

Licorice Root.                        Reduces stress

Holy Basil                             Reduces stress

Tumeric                                Reduces depression


I hope that gives you an insight into cortisol and how it affects the body. I will be covering other hormones in later articles.