Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings Space & Treasure Coast Florida

Understanding the Cortisol Stress Response

May 01, 2022 06:00PM ● By Yale Smith

Stress is a normal part of life. Each person handles stress very differently and thus their body reacts and responds in individualized ways. Some people that are trained to respond under pressure, such as a Navy Seal or first responder, may be equipped to handle more stress than someone that works in another vocation. Additional influences from outside factors or world events can compound the effects of stress without us realizing the impact.


Stress can come from physical causes (lack of sleep or illness), emotional causes (lack of money or family issues), and psychological causes (everyday obligations or pressures). The body’s response to stress is intended to protect us. But prolonged stress can be quite damaging to the body and can result in a myriad of symptoms including difficulty sleeping, anxiety, anger, depression, lack of focus, decreased energy, forgetfulness, low libido, and more.


In response to stress the adrenal gland releases the cortisol hormone. Like all hormones, if cortisol is out of balance, it can lead to various disease states.


Heart disease. High cortisol levels can constrict blood vessels triggering poor blood flow to the heart muscle leading to hypertension, increased risk of heart disease and stroke.


Depressed immunity. Overproduced cortisol can depress the white blood cell activity, increase cytokines and oxidative stress leading to inflammation. Increased inflammation provides an environment for cancer cells to form slowly over years.


Autoimmune Disease. Both the gut and adrenal glands are essential to influence the regulation of the immune system and stress response. During stress, cortisol redirects blood flow from the digestive tract to the brain and large muscles so that the digestive process and absorption of nutrients is compromised. High levels of cortisol negatively affect the permeability of the lining of the gut. Leaky gut causes the immune system to become hyperactive setting in motion the development of autoimmune conditions.


Osteoporosis. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone. Excess cortisol can break down muscle, inhibit protein synthesis and reduce bone density increasing the risk of fractures.


Hypothyroid. Stress alone will not cause a thyroid disorder, but it can make the condition worse. Cortisol can inhibit the secretion of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and cause T3 and T4 hormone levels to fall slowing the thyroid function and leading to an inability for the thyroid gland to work effectively. 


Libido. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing the cortisol during a stress response. During adrenal fatigue, DHEA levels often become depressed. Low DHEA levels influence the sex hormones, libido and PMS symptoms.


Diabetes. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored so that it can be used for short-term energy. High cortisol levels can impact blood sugar, weight and eating habits contributing to insulin resistance and diabetes risk.


Neurologic Issues. Increased cortisol can lead to decreased serotonin (anxiety, depression), decreased melatonin production (sleep), and decreased dopamine (lack of motivation and focus). This leads to food cravings for sugar and salt which can lead to hyperglycemia, insulin issues and belly fat. In addition, during times of stress the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to produce a hormone, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to increase the production of cortisol. Prolonged stress puts the hypothalamus at risk of shrinking which impacts memory retention.


A functional medicine doctor can determine an individualized plan to address the harmful effects of stress. Blood tests combined with a simple take-home saliva test can provide valuable insight into the root cause of the patient’s symptoms. Once diagnosed, a treatment modality can be orchestrated so that the body’s own physiology can right itself and a path back to normality can be achieved.


Yale (Yoel) R. Smith, MD, is triple board-certified practicing Integrative and Functional Medicine at The Center for Anti-Aging Aesthetic and Rejuvenation Medicine (CAARM). CAARM is located at 7000 Spyglass Ct, Ste 300, Viera. For more information or to make an appointment, call 321-421-7111 or visit