How does cortisol affect the body?

Natasha Turner, ND
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

Cortisol is a long-term stress hormone - it is released no matter what kind of stress you are experiencing and it's destructive to many of our body's tissues. Watch naturopathic doctor Natasha Turner, ND, discuss how cortisol affects you negatively.

Manuel Villacorta
Nutrition & Dietetics
Cortisol acts as a signal to our fat cells to hold on to as much fat as they can and release as little fat as possible, even in the face of our attempts to reduce calorie intake for weight loss. If that weren't already bad enough for our weight-loss efforts, cortisol also slows the body's metabolic rate by blocking the effects of many of our most important metabolic hormones, including insulin (so blood sugar levels suffer and carb cravings follow); serotonin (so we feel fatigued and depressed); growth hormone (so we lose muscle and gain fat); and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen (so our sex drive falls and we rarely feel "in the mood" when we're stressed-out and awash in cortisol).

To make matters worse, the release of cortisol also decreases dopamine (hormones which keeps us alert) and serotonin (hormones which relaxes us), so it becomes harder to stay in balance and keep stress in check. Cortisol messes with our mood balance, and at the same time, it increases carbohydrate cravings and fat cravings, which may lead us to eat more chocolate, for example, in order to stimulate the low dopamine and serotonin.
Eating Free: The Carb-Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good

More About this Book

Eating Free: The Carb-Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good

Eating Free reveals why the prevailing wisdom on weight loss--low-calorie, no carbs, high-intensity exercise--sharply clashes with the facts of human biology and human nature, setting dieters up for...

Cortisol actually breaks down tissue, including skin. It also can wreak havoc on numerous bodily functions. As your body’s chief, and powerful, stress hormone, it tells your body to do three things: increase your appetite; stock up on more fat; and break down materials that can be used for quick forms of energy, including muscle.

Sounds opposite to what you’d like to have happen, but that’s how your body naturally responds to stress. It automatically goes into a protectionist mode. You see, cortisol is your primary catabolic hormone, meaning it halts growth and reduces cellular synthesis (as opposed to increasing cell production and metabolism), causes muscles to break down, and assembles fat. It thinks the body won’t see food again for a while or that we need an ample supply of fuel to get through a rough patch.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

Continue Learning about Endocrine System

Endocrine System

Your endocrine system works with your nervous system to control important bodily functions. The endocrine systems responsibilities include regulating growth, sexual development and function, metabolism and mood. The endocrine syst...

em also helps give your body the energy it needs to function properly. Endocrine glands secrete hormones into the bloodstream. Hormones are considered chemical messengers, coordinating your body by transferring information from one set of cells to another. Your endocrine system health can be affected by hormone imbalances resulting from impaired glands. A hormone imbalance can cause problems with bodily growth, sexual development, metabolism and other bodily functions. Endocrine system diseases or conditions include diabetes, growth disorders and osteoporosis.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.