Cortisol – good or bad?

Written by:

Wesley Lo

Wesley Lo

Wesley is a health and fitness coach in Hong Kong, with a passion for finding ways to improve health, longevity and athletic performances.


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How many of you have heard cortisol is bad for you? It affects our mood, sleep, fat storage, insulin resistance, hunger, skin, and immune system. But is it true that it is so bad for us? And if so, why don’t we try to suppress our body’s production?

Cortisol is known as a stress hormone. When you feel fear or danger (external factors), or sick or worried (internal factors), this trigger both adrenaline and cortisol to release, which is part of what we call “fight or flight” mode. Without this mode, we will be slow to respond to threats.

Cortisol also plays a key role in our life function in our life, it:

  • helps our brains make memories
  • helps us wake up and feel alert
  • helps manage our inflammation levels
  • supports our metabolism
  • helps manage our salt and water retention levels
  • helps modulate our blood sugar levels
  • in pregnant women, it is crucial to foetal development

So, we need cortisol in our body for most daily functions, but when our bodies make too much cortisol, we are at risk of Cushing’s syndrome, and quick weight gain in the belly, face or chest, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, mood issues or the development of bruises.

Cortisol also controls the circadian rhythm, the peak secretion is in the morning around 6-7am, slowly reducing in the afternoon, when cortisol is at the lowest level around 8-9pm. Then the sleep hormone melatonin production kicks in to put us in rest mode. Many factors affect cortisol production at night. For example, an intense workout at night, using electronic screen device before bed and stressful work late in the evening.

The morning cortisol reference range (serum cortisol) value is: 130–550 nmol/L.  Ideally, the morning value should not be too high or too low. The optimal level is around the midway point of the reference range.

So, what lowers cortisol production and and what can help us reduce cortisol in general?

Many factors can increase cortisol levels, for example:

  • Caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol drinking
  • Negative thoughts
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Stress at work
  • Long duration exercise
  • Lack of sleep
  • Unhealthy relationships

It’s important to manage the cortisol and stress level to avoid Cushing’s syndrome. If you think you might have high cortisol, it’s important to see a doctor for a blood test.

To reduce your cortisol levels:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Correct amount of exercise
  • Spend time in nature
  • Massages
  • Meditate
  • Breathing exercises
  • Healthy relationships
  • Eat whole foods

Last thought, cortisol is an important hormone in our body to regulate the body function, unfortunately in this commercial society, many factors twist the real meaning of joy, happiness and self-love.

Try to spend at least 10 minutes a day to be alone for some relaxing music, breathing exercise or meditation. This basic routine can lead you to have a happier life in the long run.