Cortisol: The “Stress Hormone”


Just a decade ago, you may not have known much about cortisol. Nowadays, cortisol is as familiar to most as other hormones like insulin and testosterone. Though, most people do not have a thorough understanding of the function of cortisol in the body.

Cortisol is called the “stress hormone” because it is secreted by your adrenal glands in response to stress. It helps your body control:

  • Blood sugar levels
  • Immune system responses
  • Anti-inflammatory actions
  • Blood pressure

It also helps activate your central nervous system, which controls most of the functions of your mind and body.

How Does Cortisol Affect Your Thyroid?

Cortisol is used to stimulate the creation of thyroid hormone. Too much or too little can throw your thyroid hormones out of balance. When you’re chronically stressed, your cortisol levels will be too high. Too much cortisol causes T4 (your thyroid storage hormone) to be converted to Reverse T3 (RT3) rather than T3 (your active thyroid hormone). Reverse T3 is an inactive hormone that blocks the active thyroid hormone T3 from stimulating your cells. The function of RT3 is a normal process that your body needs because it helps preserve your health in times of famine or life threatening stress. However, if your stress is not managed properly, increasing levels of Reverse T3 can put your health in a downward spiral.

How Do You Know if You Have Too Much or Too Little Cortisol?

If you have too much cortisol in your body, you might:

  • Have trouble falling asleep because you feel wired
  • Gain weight, especially around your abdomen
  • Catch colds or infections easily
  • Have backaches and headaches

If you have too little cortisol in your body, you might:

  • Have low energy, weakness, and fatigue
  • Experience extremely sensitive skin, allergies, or hives
  • Find it easy to fall asleep, but hard to stay asleep
  • Feel clumsy or confused

These are just a few of the symptoms that can help determine if your cortisol levels are causing or contributing to your illness. You can also use lab testing such as a blood or saliva test. Blood testing of cortisol is not as accurate as saliva testing so with my patients I often use a saliva test, called a 4 point cortisol curve, to confirm a suspected imbalance.  This test can be useful to assess the severity of the problem and provide a baseline for treatment goals.

What Should I Do If I have a Cortisol Imbalance?

The best way to manage your and adrenal health and cortisol production is through stress management techniques.  This includes managing your emotional, physical and environmental stressors.  If you’re not eating the right foods, not getting enough sleep or spending too much time in a toxic environment, your adrenals will be affected.

There are also supplements, foods and lifestyle habits that can support your adrenals. Consult your healthcare provider if you experience any of the symptoms above. If needed, ask them to check your cortisol levels through saliva testing to see if you’re over or under producing, which may be having an adverse effect on your thyroid.

Dr. Jeda Boughton is a doctor of Chinese medicine in Vancouver BC, Canada, and the founder of the Natural Thyroid Health Program. She teaches women who suffer from thyroid disorders how to heal naturally through alternative medicine.

Jeda Boughton – who has written posts on Hypothyroid Treatment Vancouver BC – Natural Thyroid Treatment Doctor.