Cortisol and Your Brain


You’ve probably heard of cortisol at some point throughout your life- you probably know it has something to do with stress and maybe you even know it is a steroid hormone. But what exactly is cortisol’s role in the body, how does it impact your brain?

What is cortisol?

Like your previous knowledge informed you, cortisol is in fact a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Often referred to as the “stress hormone”, its role spans much beyond the stress response alone.

In addition to its release in response to stress, cortisol is often produced when the bloodstream has a low glucose concentration. Since glucose supplies energy for cells throughout the body, maintaining proper glucose levels is imperative for optimum health. Cortisol signals protein stores to create and release glucose, thus raising blood sugar levels.

The hormone is also aids in suppressing the immune system, metabolism and bone formation. Essentially, all mechanisms correlated with “fight or flight”: bodily functions not imperative to fleeing the situation are slowed to focus energy into the systems capable of relieving the stress.

What does cortisol have to do with your brain?

While cortisol is made by glands positioned right above the kidneys, the pituitary gland in the brain as well as the hypothalamus are responsible for controlling adrenal functioning. Therefore, conditions or tumors in either of these areas often result with abnormal hormone production.

On the other hand, cortisol can also affect the brain itself. Excessive levels have been linked to damaging and killing cells in critical cortical regions, such as the hippocampus ultimately hindering your ability to form new memories (1).

Furthermore, overall brain volume decreases with prolonged exposure to stress. This particularly occurs in the prefrontal cortex, an area of your brain orchestrating higher order mental processes such as decision making.

With more damaged cells and less volume, cognitive abilities severely worsen and potentially lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

How can you lower cortisol levels?

In order to lower cortisol levels, the cause behind the elevated levels must first be determined. If medical conditions such as tumors have been ruled out, chronic stress may be the culprit. The best way to counter stress is to remove the stressor. However, this is often not feasible. In this case, here are three helpful options to reduce levels:

  1. Ashwagandha: this ancient herb has been traditionally used to improve immune functioning. Since the immune system is intimately tied to cortisol functioning, research has investigated and supported the concept that ashwagandha can additionally help in coping with stress and reducing high cortisol (2)(3).
  2. Choosing green tea instead of coffee: caffeine is a stimulant known for aggravating cortisol levels. Starting the morning off with a green tea containing significantly less caffeine can both improve hormone levels throughout the day and over the long-term.
  3. Exercise on a regular basis: exercise causes the release of endorphins which can oppose stress, anxiety and excessive stress hormone production.
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