Stress, Cortisol, and You

Oct 31, 2021

What is stress?

We all talk about stress – ours and others – and we assume we know what that means. Do we?

Usually, when we talk about stress we’re talking about emotional stress, but stress is our response to anything that challenges the innate capacity of our body to regulate and maintain itself and to heal. Those things that challenge our balanced, harmonious, and healthy state are called stressors and can be physical, chemical, or mental/emotional.

When we adapt to stress we are in a state of homeostasis – self-healing and self-regulating. We become sick when we are unable to adapt to stress. This is the essence of whether you’re sick or well.

Cortisol – The stress hormone

With high levels of stress, the body releases a more of a hormone called cortisol to strengthen adaptation. Much – most? – of the damage from chronic stress is caused by cortisol secreted by your adrenal glands lying against your kidneys. Though in the short-term, cortisol allows you to adapt to stress, long-term high cortisol will break your body down.

Insulin is the body’s most anabolic hormone in your body and controls repair and maintenance of every part of the body. Cortisol is the most catabolic hormone in your body as its’ primary function is to break down body tissues to produce energy in response to stress.

It’s normal for your cortisol levels to be highest upon waking in the morning, to be lower later in the day, and to be lowest at night. This is the circadian cortisol rhythm.

Cortisol and the immune system 

Cortisol acts as a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory but also lowers immunity and resistance to infection. High cortisol levels decrease immune response, as measured by secretory IgA, in the linings of the lungs, throat, kidneys, bladder, and intestinal tract. Abnormal cortisol levels also weaken the intestinal wall, resulting in increased risk of developing ulcers, colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and unhealthy intestinal flora.

Cortisol and the brain

High cortisol levels can cause atrophy of the region of the brain where memories are processed and stored (hippocampus), and this phenomenon probably accounts for the impaired memory seen in people who are chronically stressed.

Cortisol, diabetes, pain, fatigue…

Abdominal fat is a common outcome of high cortisol and is a symptom of impaired insulin control (insulin resistance) and type II diabetes. Muscle and joint aches and pain often result from impaired ability to maintain muscle, cartilage, and connective tissue. The same process predisposes to osteoporosis, thinning of skin, poor wound healing, and muscle wasting. Abnormal cortisol levels are a common cause of thyroid problems.

Cortisol, poor sleep, depression…

Abnormal circadian rhythm of cortisol will usually show as waking tired in the morning (high cortisol upsets the normal REM stage sleep), fatigue during the day along with craving caffeine and sugar to provide temporary relief, and difficulty getting to sleep at night. The disturbed sleep has shown to be causative of depression.

Cortisol and "medical mysteries"

Often patients will see doctors who are not trained to recognize this wide collection of symptoms and will diagnose the individual conditions, such as depression or osteoporosis, but not the underlying issue of don’t get of these changes can over time result in the constellation of symptoms commonly called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia.

Doctors using applied kinesiology are uniquely trained to diagnose and solve stress and cortisol related health problems. History, physical exams, lab testing, and applied kinesiology exams demonstrate high cortisol when present and lead the best course of action to solve it. This approach guides the healthcare and selfcare that reduces stress and normalizes cortisol circadian rhythm.

Selfcare for high cortisol

Rest and Relaxation
Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is incredibly harmful; most of us need eight hours.
Have some unstructured time for relaxation, and make sure to find satisfaction in your work, in a hobby, or both.

Balance Your Nervous System 

• General physical activity
• Intense interval exercise
• Yoga, tai chi, or chi gong
• Full abdominal breathing
• Meditation, contemplation, prayer
• Practice gratitude
• May require chiropractic care,
craniosacral therapy, acupuncture

Balance Your Blood Sugar
Eat whole, natural, unrefined foods Eat regularly

Avoid Stimulants
Avoid “energy” drinks Avoid caffeine to excess

Balance Your Zinc
Zinc decreases cortisol. If you are deficient, which is common, a small dose at lunch and dinner will help rebalance your cortisol levels.


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Murphy, L., Denis, R., Ward, C.P. & Tartar, J.L., 2010, Academic stress differentially influences perceived stress, salivary cortisol, and immunoglobulin-A in undergraduate students, Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 13(4), pp. 365-70.

Black, P.H., 2006, The inflammatory consequences of psychologic stress: relationship to insulin resistance, obesity, atherosclerosis and diabetes mellitus, type II, Medical Hypotheses, 67(4), pp. 879-91.

Mujica-Parodi, L.R., Renelique, R. & Taylor, M.K., 2009, Higher body fat percentage is associated with increased cortisol reactivity and impaired cognitive resilience in response to acute emotional stress, International journal of obesity (2005), 33(1), pp. 157-65.

Chervin, R.D., Teodorescu, M., Kushwaha, R., Deline, A.M., Brucksch, C.B., Ribbens-Grimm, C., Ruzicka, D.L., Stein, P.K., Clauw, D.J. & Crofford, L.J., 2009, Objective measures of disordered sleep in fibromyalgia, The Journal of Rheumatology, 36(9), pp. 2009-16.

Lee, M.S., Lee, M.S., Kim, H.J. & Moon, S.R., 2003, Qigong reduced blood pressure and catecholamine levels of patients with essential hypertension, The International journal of neuroscience, 113(12), pp. 1691-701.

Brandão-Neto, J., de Mendonça, B.B., Shuhama, T., Marchini, J.S., Pimenta, W.P. & Tornero, M.T., 1990, Zinc acutely and temporarily inhibits adrenal cortisol secretion in humans. A preliminary report, Biological trace element research, 24(1), pp. 83-9.

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