Cortisol: Everything You Need to Know

Cortisol is an essential hormone that underpins our body's stress response, metabolism, and immune system. Keep reading to find out why you should know about cortisol, as well as symptoms of when levels are too high or too low.

What exactly is cortisol?

Cortisol is one of the dozens of hormones produced by our body to regulate essential functions. The compound's primary roles include regulating inflammation, blood sugar, metabolism, and our sleep-wake cycle as part of the body's innate flight or fight response.[1]

Understanding the fight or flight response

When the body senses a dangerous or difficult situation, it spikes cortisol levels to get our body “ready” for the challenges ahead. This reaction to harmful stimuli is perfectly normal, and without it our prehistoric ancestors wouldn't have survived for very long.

In today's society, the influence of cortisol is still just as significant. The threat of a sabre-tooth tiger may have passed, but we still rely on our body's fight or flight response to deal with challenges such as work deadlines, social situations, pushing ourselves in the gym, and much more.

How cortisol works

Before we dive into the signs and symptoms of abnormal cortisol levels, it helps to understand a little about the compound's mechanisms—how it works, where it comes from, and how the body responds when levels spike.

• The adrenal glands, pituitary gland, and hypothalamus (also called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) control cortisol production and regulation.

The hypothalamus is the first to react to a lack of cortisol, sending corticotropin-releasing hormone into the bloodstream. The pituitary gland then senses the spike in corticotropin and releases its own hormone into the blood—adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Finally, the adrenal gland notices the increase in adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary gland, taking it as a sign that it needs to ramp up cortisol production.

Given that virtually all cells in the body have receptors that can interact with cortisol, it makes sense that its production and regulation is a sophisticated affair. The caveat, of course, is that greater complexity means a greater chance for things to go wrong—something we'll cover shortly.

What cortisol does to the body

So, why does the body go through so much effort to regulate cortisol levels? Well, as we highlighted earlier, it plays a fundamental role in how we think, feel, and act during stressful situations, modulating the following:

• Blood pressure: Cortisol increases blood pressure and heart rate as part of the body's stress response.

• Sleep-wake cycle: Cortisol levels naturally rise in the morning to help the body wake up, before declining through the day.

• Blood sugar (glucose): More cortisol in the bloodstream tells the liver to speed up the conversion of glycogen to glucose.

Digestion: Cortisol suppresses appetite and slows digestion to stop the body from storing glucose.

• Inflammation: In the short term, cortisol helps to reduce inflammation. However, prolonged hormone spikes can do the opposite, contributing to chronic inflammation.

These reactions are beneficial in the short term, giving us the focus and energy we need to respond to stressful situations. However, as you can imagine, the body doesn't cope well when cortisol levels remain spiked.

High cortisol levels: symptoms

Let's start with the impact of excessive cortisol, as this is one of the most frequent complaints. With the hormone's intrinsic role in our stress response, it's more common for people to experience health problems from too much rather than too little (although both cases can cause significant issues).

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

• Sudden weight gain (usually in the face and around the abdomen)
• Acne breakouts
• Muscle weakness
• Fatigue
• Irritability
• High blood pressure
• Slowed healing
• Headaches
• Easily bruised skin

Because cortisol exists to put the body in a state of readiness, excessive levels put tremendous strain on the body. In severe circumstances, a condition called Cushing syndrome can occur. Encouragingly, the condition is rare and usually results from an underlying health issue involving the pituitary or adrenal glands.

Low cortisol levels: symptoms

Often, more focus is given to what happens when cortisol levels are too high. However, as you'll find out from the list below, too little cortisol is just as problematic.

Symptoms of low cortisol levels include:

• Muscle weakness that becomes progressively worse
• Fatigue
• Weight loss
• Low blood pressure
• Digestive issues (diarrhoea and nausea)
• Patches of dark skin

Again, if levels are left too low for too long, symptoms can worsen, eventually developing into Addison's disease. Fortunately, treatments for Addison's disease are quite effective, as several medications can mimic the action of cortisol to restore balance to the body.

CBD and cortisol

The relationship between CBD and cortisol is a fascinating one, not least of all because the cannabinoid may act as an anti-catabolic (a term used to describe supplements that can influence proteins and muscle mass breakdown). From the list of symptoms above, we know that spikes in cortisol (both low and high) directly affect muscle strength, so what does that mean for CBD?

In 1993, Universidade de São Paulo examined the "effects of cannabidiol (CBD) on plasma prolactin, growth hormone and cortisol".[2] In two separate double-blind experiments, the researchers noted that the four volunteers who took CBD saw a "decrease in cortisol levels".

Of course, knowing an interaction may exist is only one piece of the puzzle. There's still a long way to go before we understand how the interaction could help with symptoms of low or high cortisol levels.

We also need to consider the study's small sample size. Cortisol is a fundamental hormone, but the complexity of the human body means that the only way to get a definitive answer is with much larger, more comprehensive studies. That said, it's still a compelling start to CBD and cortisol research.

How to dose CBD for high cortisol levels

It's crucial to highlight that research into CBD and cortisol remains in its infancy, and we don't currently know what the ideal dose could be. That said, CBD is generally well-tolerated in humans, with few reported side effects, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).[3]

This means experimenting with different doses of CBD is one of the best ways to see if it suits your wellness needs. The difficulty, however, is that the most suitable dose varies based on sex, body size, weight, metabolism, and previous experience with CBD.

Because many people find getting started with CBD challenging, we've devised a straightforward CBD dosage calculator. By asking you several key questions (based on the factors above), the online tool suggests a starting dose and the best product to get started with.

The importance of cortisol

Cortisol is fundamental to our body's innate flight or fight response, making it a crucial part of how we think, feel, and act during difficult situations. Its influence extends to virtually every area of well-being, which means keeping levels balanced is crucial to living a long and fulfilling life.

The more accepting we are of stress, and cortisol's role in our stress response, the better we can manage the symptoms when levels spike out of control. And with research on CBD and cortisol ongoing, we may turn to the cannabinoid for help in the future. Until then, just knowing what cortisol is, how it works, and spotting symptoms early goes a long way in undoing the damage this essential hormone can cause.

To experience the vast influence of CBD for yourself, why not browse the Cibdol store? Our complete range of CBD oils, capsules, supplements, and more caters to all wellness needs. Or, to learn more about essential hormones and their role in well-being, visit our CBD Encyclopedia.


[1] Thau L. Physiology, Cortisol. StatPearls [Internet]. Published September 6, 2021. Accessed March 14, 2022. [Source]

[2] AC; ZAWGFSM. Effect of cannabidiol on plasma prolactin, growth hormone and cortisol in human volunteers. Brazilian journal of medical and biological research = Revista brasileira de pesquisas medicas e biologicas. Published 1993. Accessed March 14, 2022. [Source]

[3] WHO | cannabidiol critical review. Published 2018. Accessed March 14, 2022. [Source]

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