The “Stress Hormone:” How Cortisol Crushes Mental Health

woman expressing feeling stressed

Do you power through your day feeling like you’re putting out one fire after the next? Do you feel like you’re in “fight-or-flight” mode most of the time? Do you find it difficult to fully relax?

Daily life is filled with many stressors and perceived threats triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response to the point that it dysregulates the HPA axis, and cortisol levels remain high. Click To Tweet

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may suffer from chronic stress and elevated levels of cortisol—and it’s likely affecting your mental health. You’re also not alone.

Recent survey data shows that 33% of U.S. adults feel they are living with extreme stress. And 73% report that it’s impacting their mental health negatively.

Here’s what you need to know about cortisol, and what you can do to keep stress hormone levels balanced to protect your mental health.


Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in your body’s two adrenal glands, which sit atop your two kidneys. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” as it plays a critical role in activating your body’s stress response (although it serves many roles in the body).

The “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response gets activated when your brain perceives a threat—real or imagined. The brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary glands send a signal to the adrenals to release cortisol.  This communication and relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands is called the HPA axis.

Once released into the bloodstream, cortisol goes to work to make more glucose available to your brain and body and substances for repairing tissue. It alters immune system responses and dials down the nonessential systems such as the digestive and reproductive system, as well as growth processes. It also documents and stores memories of potential danger.

These physiologic responses are designed to help you fight off, flee from, or freeze in the face of the threat at hand. When the threat passes, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands signal the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol and bodily systems return back to normal functioning.

Yet, the stress response is not the only function of cortisol. Cortisol receptors are found throughout nearly every part of your brain and body because this important hormone has a hand in most bodily processes and functions.

Among the most critical functions, cortisol helps regulate and control the following:

  • Your metabolism’s use of fats, proteins, and carbs
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Suppression of inflammation
  • The sleep-wake cycle

As you can see, cortisol is a vital hormone for life! It only becomes a liability when cortisol levels get elevated and remain elevated.


The cortisol levels in your body naturally fluctuate over the course of a day in a rhythm set by the brain. Cortisol is usually highest in the morning when you wake and then it gradually declines during the day and until it reaches its lowest level in the late afternoon. Then, starting around 2:00 a.m., cortisol levels begin to rise again.

Having prolonged elevated cortisol levels is usually considered Cushing’s disease (alternatively called Cushing’s syndrome or hypercortisolism). Cushing’s disease or having higher levels of cortisol in the body can be caused by:

  • Overuse of corticosteroid medication (such as prednisone)
  • An underlying condition (such as a pituitary or adrenal tumor) c
  • Chronic stress
  • Lifestyle factors

In today’s world, chronic stress is all too common. Daily life is filled with many stressors and perceived threats triggering the “fight or flight” response to the point that it dysregulates the HPA axis, and cortisol levels remain high.

Eating a diet filled with too many refined carbohydrates, consuming alcohol regularly, chronically poor sleep, inflammation, and pain can all lead to high cortisol levels too. Unfortunately, chronically high cortisol levels are corrosive to both physical and mental health.


Signs of higher-than-normal cortisol levels may include:

  • Muscle weakness in your thighs and upper arms
  • Weight gain, particularly in your abdomen and face
  • High blood sugar levels (Type 2 diabetes)
  • High blood pressure
  • Excessive hair growth in women
  • Weak bones and fractures
  • Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades
  • Wide, purple-colored stretchmarks on your belly 


Prolonged stress and high cortisol levels in the body make us more vulnerable to mental health disorders, an abundance of research has found.

A 2021 research review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine notes multiple studies showing the crushing effects chronic stress and excessive cortisol levels can have on mental health, including the following findings:

  • It can result in the manifestation of other psychological symptoms such as clinical depression, irritability, and emotional instability.
  • It’s a clear biomarker in people with anxiety
  • An astounding 50% percent of patients with newly diagnosed depression were observed to have “excessive cortisol secretion.”
  • An increase in cortisol secretion is associated with the manic phase of bipolar disorder (BD).
  • It can lead to the death of neurons located in the hippocampus and imaging studies have noted reduced hippocampal volume in individuals with borderline personality disorder. Reduced volume is also found in individuals with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (as well as reduced volume of the prefrontal cortex and amygdala).
  • An underlying component of the association between stress/high cortisol levels and mental health conditions is dysregulation of the HPA axis.
  • Stress and increased cortisol levels may contribute to the relapse of depression, BD, and schizophrenia. 


The key to lowering elevated cortisol levels is adopting healthy lifestyle habits, including the following:

  • Get restful sleep. Regularly getting quality sleep is key to reducing stress. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increase in cortisol levels. If you get 7-9 hours of restful sleep a night, it should help to regulate your cortisol levels.
  • Exercise and/or do yoga. Physical exercise provides one of the best releases for the stored up “fight or flight” energy. Aerobic activities, like walking, hiking, biking, swimming, jogging, or using an elliptical are excellent. It only takes 20-30 minutes most days of the week to help cortisol levels normalize. Yoga will do the same while offering mindfulness training as well.
  • Spend time in nature. Some research shows that spending time in nature calms the nervous system, reduces stress, as well as cortisol levels. Take a walk in the park, at the beach, or in some beautiful outdoor setting often.
  • Be with animals. Having a pet can lower your cortisol levels, research If you can’t own a pet, visit an animal shelter to walk a dog or pet a cat.
  • Nurture social connections. Connect with other people socially. Research shows it can reduce stress and cortisol levels—and it will make you feel good.
  • Practice deep breathing. Doing deep breathing, even if it is for a few minutes, can immediately help to reduce stress, anxiety, and cortisol level, research has found. Keep it simple. Slowly breathe to the count of six, hold your breath for six, breathe out for six, hold your breath for six and repeat.
  • Any kind of meditation that you will actually do on a regular basis is the best meditation. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is associated with lower cortisol levels in studies.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Avoid high-glycemic foods such as sugary treats and refined carbohydrates. Instead, eat wholesome fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein. Eat regularly, as balanced blood sugar levels help to keep cortisol levels balanced too. Plus, healthy food will support your mental well-being.

In some instances, high cortisol levels may need to be treated with medication by a medical doctor. Reach out to a professional immediately, if you suspect you’re having a cortisol balance problem or a mental health condition.

Chronic stress, elevated cortisol levels, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-719-2501 or visit our contact page here.

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