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Cortisol’s Risks and Rewards Based on Your Stress Level

Cortisol is a hormone that’s released into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands. It’s released in two ways: in low, steady levels and in high, short bursts. Releasing a short burst of concentrated cortisol is part of your body’s survival mechanism, also know as the fight or flight response.

Steady levels of cortisol provide low doses that help to regulate:

  • Blood-sugar levels
  • Metabolism
  • Blood pressure
  • Immunity
  • Inflammatory response

Short bursts of concentrated cortisol can provide:

  • A burst of energy
  • Increased memory function
  • Heightened immunity
  • Higher pain threshold
  • Homeostasis support

To put it simply, cortisol is a very useful hormone. In times of dire stress, true stress (i.e., life-threatening situations) cortisol can be a true lifesaver. It’s even fair to say that our survival as a species could be attributed to cortisol. Wait. Haven’t you heard that cortisol is bad? Very bad? Yep, me, too.

It’s true that high levels of cortisol, for prolonged periods of time, can cause severe damage to our bodies. Maintaining dangerous levels of cortisol can contribute to complicated health problems such as depression, heart attack, stroke and many others.

Harmful levels of cortisol can:

  • Raise blood pressure
  • Decrease muscle tissue and bone density
  • Impair mental capacity, memory and decision making
  • Impair blood-sugar regulation
  • Impair thyroid function
  • Increase abdominal fat
  • Influence over-indulgence
  • Lower immunity
  • Elicit feelings of stress and panic
  • Raise blood pressure

Dangerous levels of cortisol are an increasing problem for our country. We lead such demanding and high stress lifestyles that our bodies are unable to activate a relaxation response after initiating a fight or flight response.

Many, many years ago, our fight or flight response would be activated if we were being stalked by, oh say, a saber toothed tiger. Thankfully, I rarely get stalked by such creatures these days! Unfortunately, by reacting so intensely to much less dire situations (a board meeting, traffic jam or spilled milk) we still activate the same primal response within our bodies. We subconsciously activate this response everyday, and some of us do so several times a day.

It’s important to learn how to activate your relaxation response and avoid unnecessary stress. If you find it alarmingly difficult to de-stress, consult your doctor because there may be ways to help. Everyone’s relaxation response will be triggered differently. Find out what calms you down. Some common ways to de-stress are:

  • Exercise
  • Nature walks
  • Writing or journaling
  • Meditation or prayer
  • Breathing exercises
  • Listening to music
  • Yoga
  • Gardening
  • Reading

Also Read:

Manage Stress With Simple Relaxation Techniques

Stress Makes Us Fat

Stress: The Bad

November 3rd, 2010

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(Page 1 of 1, 3 total comments)


De-stressing is difficilt for me. I have Anxiety Disorder. When i have a panic attack, i get the fight or flight reaction and I can rarely relax my way out of it. Cortisol is going to be my new enemy. I guess it's time to go back to the doctor.

posted Nov 3rd, 2010 5:31 pm


For some one like me who is easily stressed out over stupid things left and right, it's incredibly useful. I admit I struggle with depression and find it difficult to calm down and relax. My husband tells me often that I need to quit running around 90mph all day every day. He is, of course, right.

I hope to learn to chill out and not sweat the small stuff. Easier said than done, but a 20 min power nap and a 10 min stretching right after has been helping recently.

I hope more people can learn about their own bodies and what it's telling you.

posted Nov 3rd, 2010 5:25 pm

Lavada Cook

Very interesting! I had know idea.We don't think of everyday stressers causing the fight or flight response.

posted Nov 3rd, 2010 5:21 pm


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