Cortisol – the good and the bad

I have learned to recognise the signals my body gives me when my stress levels start to rise. A technique I use to combat these feelings is to ask myself, “Am I under threat?”. It’s a mindful “check-in” to help balance the cortisol in my body, as elevated cortisol levels can be linked to burnout (adrenal fatigue).

Fight or flight

Cortisol is a normal and essential function in our bodies. It is a hormone that is released when we’re stressed to give our body the message that it needs to adjust and react.

Cortisol is made in the adrenal cortex by the adrenal glands and is released when the brain – in a time of perceived stress – signals the hypothalamus and pituitary. When there is enough cortisol, the adrenal glands stop releasing the hormone and cortisol levels decline.


  • It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, and drive you to take action that leads to safety.
  • Controls the sleep/wake cycle. Cortisol’s peak release is on waking and declines throughout the day to be replaced by melatonin, our sleep hormone for a balanced natural sleep/wake process.
  • Manages how the body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
  • Regulates blood pressure and increase blood sugar (glucose).
  • Decreases inflammation in response to an injury.
  • Indicates when the body and mind are under strain so that we know when to slow down or stop whatever it is that we’re doing that is triggering feelings of stress.

The danger of imbalanced cortisol

Modern life places a significant strain on our bodies, such as emotional and work stresses, poor eating choices, sleep deprivation, unhealthy relationships, suppressed emotions and environmental chemicals. All of which are factors that can lead to chronic cortisol release.

In chronic cortisol release state, the natural mechanism of the brain signals to the adrenal cortex, which stops working correctly. The condition of being under constant stress keeps our bodies in “fight or flight” mode like an alarm button that is constantly on, which can derail the body’s most important functions.

Imbalanced cortisol can:

  • Interfere with correct brain function.
  • Negatively impact metabolism.
  • Break down muscle and increase blood pressure.
  • Disrupt the natural levels of insulin – the fat-storage hormone – which can lead to weight issues like obesity.

Signs that your cortisol levels may be imbalanced

Are you: 

  • Constantly fatigued?
  • Suffering from high blood pressure?
  • Weight loss resistant?
  • Gaining weight?
  •  Craving sugar?
  • Constantly sick?
  • Anxious?
  • Irritable?
  • Experiencing sleep issues?
  • Bruising easily?
  • Experiencing muscle weakness?

If you answer yes to any of the above symptoms, it is advisable to get your cortisol levels checked – this can be done through a simple blood test.

How to lower and balance cortisol levels

It may take time to restore your cortisol balance and to retrain your body to cope with the pressures of modern life. Here are a few lifestyle skills that you can adopt to minimise a stress-reaction:

  • Learn to recognise your stress triggers and separate yourself from overwhelming situations.
  • Proactively reduce instances of worry and anxiety.
  • Stick to a regular bedtime routine, let the cortisol levels drop so melatonin can be released for good night’s sleep.
  • Get at least 7½ to 9 hours’ of sleep per night.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet. Include a wide range of vitamins and minerals needed to assist with the cortisol process.
  • Decrease caffeine intake.
  • Take a bath with Epsom Salts, which are rich in magnesium – a mineral known to promote relaxation.
  • Try mindfulness techniques, listen to your body, slow down if you feel stressed.
  • During times of stress, ask yourself, “Am I in imminent danger?”
  • Try exercise that includes moving and stretching.
  • Laugh, have fun and unwind.
  • Get a pet. Some studies indicate that having a pet can lower cortisol levels.
  • Consider seeing a functional medicine practitioner.

Supplements to lower cortisol

MAGNESIUM: Too much stress drains the body of magnesium. We need magnesium to help balance cortisol levels by improving blood sugar, promoting relaxation, improving sleep and your ability to adapt to stress.

B VITAMINS: These are important to regulate our stress responses. Both vitamin B and magnesium help support healthy adrenal glands.

CBD OIL: Is shown to influence hormones, including cortisol, that are critical to how we feel. Clinical research has shown that CBD may lower cortisol levels.

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