Cortisol is basically a hormone, scientifically known as corticosteroid hormone, which is made by our body. Cortisol is often dubbed as the 'stress' hormone because it is produced in larger amounts when people are under considerable tension, particularly when one's body is in the 'flight or fight' mode. This hormone is produced by the adrenal gland, which makes it at different levels all through the day. Usually, people have maximum cortisol available during the morning and its level diminishes with the progress of the day. The synthetically prepared version of this hormone is known as hydrocortisone.

Some of the actions of cortisol are specifically very helpful. For instance, this 'stress hormone' aids in lessening inflammation actions. In addition, one may use its synthetic version hydrocortisone externally to cure inflamed skin conditions or used in the form of an injection to lessen inflammation in tissues. In several situations, using cortisol is a very useful treatment. Besides helping to reduce inflammations, cortisol also provides additional benefits, which include ensuring that the body does not lose the essential mineral sodium. Cortisol may also be useful for temporarily augmenting remembrance. In addition, this hormone also facilitates the liver in eliminating toxic substances from the body.

Nonetheless, cortisol also has its downsides and some of its actions are detrimental for the body. Most important among the obstructive actions of this hormone include elevating blood pressure, lessen the response of the immune system, poorer bone density, and its potential consequences on the glucose levels in blood serum. However, cortisol does not seem to have these unhelpful effects when it is produced in usual amounts and its production is somewhat controlled. Surplus amounts of this hormone may prove to be harmful for individuals living with elevated stress levels. In fact, cortisol may even work to diminish serotonin - a neurotransmitter that aids in bringing about a feeling of calm and health.

Conditions when the levels of cortisol are exceptionally high or low are known as hypercortisolism and hypocortisolism, in that order. Hypercortisolism may lead to Cushing's syndrome which can cause extremely rapid weight gain, easy bruising, and too much sweating in addition to resulting in psychological problems at times. On the other hand, hypocortisolism results in Addison's disease that may cause considerable weight gain, mood swings, major muscle pains and also exhaustion. Administering hydrocortisone orally is among the effective treatments for hypocortisolism.

Provided you do not suspect that you have developed either Cushing's syndrome or Addison's disease, you do not require undergoing any test to determine the level of cortisol in your body. This is particularly true when you do not have any noticeable symptoms hinting that you have an elevated or poor level of cortisol. A number of studies have been undertaken that suggest examining the cortisol levels when an individual has considerably diminished bone density. There are times when some people make this 'stress' hormone in great amounts. It has been found that several women have an elevated level of cortisol during pregnancy. It is worth mentioning here that ailments as well as extreme stress or pressure may enhance cortisol production by the body.

It is important for all of us to try and reduce strain/ pressure because higher stress prompts the body to produce corticosteroid hormone in excessive amounts, which is harmful for our health. Therefore, you may benefit by practicing various methods to relax or unwind yourself, keeping away from stressful situations whenever possible, and also by availing some therapy that helps to bring down the anxiety levels. Exercising regularly may also help in lowering cortisol levels in the body, only if the levels of this hormone are not exceptionally high so as to result in the malfunctioning of the adrenal gland.

Role of cortisol

The adrenal gland produces many different types of hormones and cortisol is one among them. This hormone has an important function in our hormonal system, as it facilitates in regulating blood pressure as well as the functioning of the cardiovascular system, in addition to metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The adrenal glands release cortisol in reaction to any type of stress encountered by the body - psychological or physical, resulting in breaking down muscle protein, which, in turn, discharges amino acids into our bloodstream. Subsequently, the liver transforms the amino acids into energy. In addition, cortisol activates glycogen (stored in the liver in the form of sugar or glucose) to produce energy. It may be noted that our body possesses a sophisticated system that regulates the secretion of cortisol.

Since the body makes and releases cortisol when one is agitated or under stress, this hormone is widely referred to as supposed 'stress hormone'. However, it needs to be noted that cortisol is essential for the proper functioning of all body parts. Any surplus or shortage of this vital hormone may result in a variety of physical symptoms as well as ailments.

As aforementioned, the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys produce cortisol, which has a vital role in the functioning of several body systems, including maintaining the health of the cardiovascular system; regulating blood pressure; metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins; sustaining growth; maintaining regular bone density; and proper functioning of the kidneys, brain (including cognition and behaviour) and the immune system.

Generally, stress results in activating the secretion of hormones that enhance cortisol production, and also other hormones, to make our body ready for action as well as safeguard it from any kind of harm in case of any tormenting injury. Once the traumatic incident is over, the levels of the hormones become regular. However, when there is persistent or recurring stress the body keeps on producing cortisol. When the adrenal glands are required to produce this hormone continuously, ultimately they become weak, resulting in the tiredness of these glands and are eventually exhausted (a condition called adrenal burnout). The occurrence of such a situation may possibly result in several symptoms, including enhanced body fat, depression and fatigue.

Our body has a sophisticated response system that controls the secretion of cortisol and also regulates the level of this hormone in the bloodstream. A tiny gland located at the brain's base and called the pituitary gland is responsible for producing as well as secreting a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which sends signals to the adrenal glands to enhance production and release of cortisol. Prior to this, the hypothalamus - an area in the brain, releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to hint the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH. An increase in the amount of the regulatory hormones like CRH and ACTH results in an instant enhancement in the level of cortisol. However, presence of excessive amounts of cortisol provides a negative response to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to decrease CRH and ACTH production and, in this way, the adrenal glands lower the secretion of cortisol.

The body secretes standard amounts of cortisol in a diurnal (daily) cycle. This denotes that the levels of cortisol in the body fluctuate throughout the 24 hours of a day. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol most during the day time, with the maximum amount being made and released during the early morning, and it gradually declines to the minimum level sometime around the midnight. Besides, this regular cadence, the secretion of cortisol goes up in reaction to any kind of stress - psychological or physical.

Adrenal insufficiency

People who are not able to make sufficient amounts of cortisol to fulfill their individual requirements are said to be suffering from adrenal deficiency or insufficiency, which is a fatal hormonal deficit, but can be treated without much difficulty.

There are numerous different reasons that may be responsible for a person producing insufficient amounts of cortisol. In addition, the deficit of this hormone in one's body may be broadly classified into two groups - primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency, which are discussed briefly below.

Primary adrenal insufficiency: This condition is also called Addison's disease and it strikes when the adrenal gland itself is not able to make sufficient cortisol. In most instances, primary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the immune system of the body is responsible for the steady ruining of the adrenal cortex (the adrenal glands' exterior most layer). One is said to be suffering from adrenal insufficiency when no less than 90 per cent of his/ her adrenal cortex has been damaged. Consequently, usually the cortisol as well as the mineralocorticoid (also called aldostertone) are deficient in such patients. In fact, as high as 80 per cent of cases of adrenal insufficiency that are reported in the developed world are attributable to autoimmune problems and the number of cases has been increasing with the rise in cases related to autoimmune diseases. In addition to this, other reasons for developing primary adrenal insufficiency may include flawed growth of the adrenal gland and tuberculosis.

Secondary adrenal insufficiency: This medical condition is more widespread compared to primary adrenal insufficiency and takes place when the pituitary gland as well as the hypothalamus cannot encourage and control the adrenal glands in producing cortisol. Tumours as well as ailments related to the pituitary gland are the main reasons for secondary adrenal insufficiency.

In case the levels of cortisol in your blood stream is extremely low, you are likely to experience weariness, chronic fatigue, overtiredness as well as Addison's disease, an ailment related to the endocrine system. On the contrary, provided your adrenal glands are making excessive cortisol, you may possibly suffer from problems like stomach ulcers; weight gain, particularly in the region of the abdomen; poor functioning of the immune system accompanied with the entire repercussions; and aging too quickly.

Of late, people have become very aware regarding the effects of too much cortisol vis-�-vis weight gain and the problems related to losing weight. It is interesting to note that, together, the failure of the assortment of diet plans that are being endorsed by numerous experts is as high as anything between 93 per cent and 97 per cent. This can be attributed to various issues. The first and foremost among them is the problem in attaining behavioural adaptations regardless of easily availing the inappropriate and damaging types of foods; basically inactive lifestyles; and an extreme brainwashing by the media. In addition, the fact that the actions of a number of hormones are unhelpful for us from the viewpoint of losing extra weight is another reason for the failure of the diet plans. It can be surely concluded that the high levels of cortisol are responsible for this.

The consequences of chronic high cortisol

Cortisol is one of the several hormones produced by the adrenal glands and has several vital functions, including energy generation, controlling blood sugar, regulating inflammation and the immune system as well as a crucial role in the healing process.

Constant high levels of cortisol aid in the build-up of fat in the abdominal region and it often becomes very difficult to eliminate such fats. At the same time, this causes the immune system to become repressed and the person turns out to be additionally vulnerable to minor as well as major contagions. It is very obvious that everyone would want their cortisol levels to remain normal.

How to correct your cortisol level

In order to maintain the normal level of cortisol it is essential to reduce stress. In fact, initially, stress works like a stimulus for the cortisol levels to go beyond control. Therefore, it is important for every individual to look at and also discover different methods that help to reduce stress and those that are most appropriate for them. Some of the stress reduction techniques that you may look at are physical activities, meditation and changing your attitude. Unless you are able to reduce stress, all other remedial as well as support initiatives will fail ultimately.

In addition to adopting suitable relaxing techniques, you may do a few additional things to reduce stress, such as taking enough rest, a diet low in sugar content and various nutritional supplements.

While it may seem that resting yourself is an obvious choice to lessen stress, you ought to remember that rest should also be controlled and planned as a purposeful approach, preference and a system. If you don't adopt this approach, you may often forget to rest yourself in your busy life schedule.

If you are endeavoring to reduce stress, it is very important to take a diet that is low in sugar content, because high amounts of sugar in your food enhances stress, thereby raising the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. When the cortisol levels are increased, they make sugar handling situation worse, thereby adding to the development of elevated levels of insulin and eventually resulting in diabetes.

Taking nutritional supplements help immensely to restore the usual levels of cortisol. Nevertheless, it is important that you first find out whether you have a high or low cortisol level. You should know that low levels of cortisol (hypocortisolism) are a result of adrenal burn out or the stress response's exhaustion stage. On the other hand, high levels of cortisol (hypercortisolism) occur owing to the body's response to persistent stress and it manifests the adjustment stage of stress response.