by Iris Goldsztajn
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it plays a key role in our bodies’ response to stress. That said, this steroid hormone also serves several other functions in the body. In this article, we’ll walk you through some of the major functions of cortisol, as well as what can throw it off balance. Lastly, we detail how CBD might be able to help regulate your cortisol levels.
Which Body Functions Is Cortisol Involved in?
Cortisol is heavily involved in what is known as our “fight-or-flight” response, when we’re presented with a stressful situation or perceived threat. Adrenaline and cortisol spike, putting you into high alert, primed to respond to the danger — whether you’re being followed by a tiger or you have to give a big presentation. Cortisol alters some of our bodies’ “nonessential” functions — that is, things that can be pushed aside while you’re in a situation that needs to be dealt with there and then — so that you’re able to fight (face the situation head on) or take flight (escape the situation).
The natural ebb and flow of cortisol levels in the body helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle (or, body clock). A paper published in Natural Medicine Journal describes cortisol production throughout the day as a waveform pattern. “Cortisol levels start to rise approximately 2-3 hours after sleep onset and continue to rise into the early morning and early waking hours. The peak in cortisol is about 9 a.m.; as the day continues, levels decline gradually.” Knowing this, it’s easy to see how an imbalance in your cortisol levels could lead to sleeplessness at night and grogginess during the day.
Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone. If you’re exposed to too much stress, your body may not produce enough cortisol to keep your body in balance, which in turn can lead to inflammation. “Although stressful events may be an inevitable part [of] life, a prolonged or exaggerated response to pain or non–pain-related stressors may intensify sympathetic and neuroendocrine activity, exhaust cortisol, and perpetuate widespread pain and inflammation,” according to an article published in Physical Therapy. This is another reason why keeping cortisol levels steady is so important.
Cortisol is involved in regulating the glucose levels in your body, and works to increase blood sugar. According to one paper, “The presence of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, increases the availability of blood glucose to the brain.” Essentially, when you enter flight-or-flight mode, you need enough energy to deal with the stressful situation, and cortisol provides your body with the glucose it needs to “fight” or run. It follows that if you find yourself in stressful situations too often, your blood sugar levels might become too high, which is part of why managing stress should be a priority for your well-being.
What Can Throw Cortisol Out of Whack?
You can have either too little or too much cortisol in the body for it to function optimally — the goal should be to keep your cortisol levels balanced, so that you can go about your daily tasks. A number of factors can throw cortisol out of balance, but the main one to look for is stress, as you might have already gathered. Experiencing some amount of stress is normal and healthy, but if you’re under constant stress, your body might release too much cortisol, which can lead to issues down the line. High levels of estrogen in the body, as in pregnancy, can also heighten cortisol.
CBD and Cortisol: What Studies Show About How They Interact
Many people regularly take CBD in hopes to help them manage their stress levels, and current research tends toward supporting this approach. One study of 11 volunteers found that taking 300 or 600 milligrams of CBD decreased cortisol levels. Other research has found similar potential, showing how CBD may work within our bodies’ natural systems to help us regulate our stress response and balance cortisol levels. So if you often find yourself in stressful situations, you could try taking a CBD daily to evaluate how it impacts you over time.
Ultimately, cortisol has rightfully earned its reputation as the “stress hormone” and is involved in regulating a number of body functions. But when cortisol levels become imbalanced, this can interfere with how well we sleep, heighten blood sugar and lead to inflammation, among other things. Therefore, managing stress is especially important for keeping cortisol levels within a healthy range — and CBD may be able to help with that.
Iris Goldsztajn is a London-based writer and editor with seven years of experience creating content for various outlets. Her work has appeared in the likes of InStyle, Stylist and Cosmopolitan, and she won first place in Writing Magazine’s Grand Prize for a short story in 2020.
VeryWellMind - What Is Cortisol?
Mayo Clinic - Stress management
Natural Medicine Journal - “The Role of Cortisol in Sleep”
StatPearls - “Physiology, Cortisol”
Diabetes Education Online - Blood Sugar & Stress
Healthline - High Cortisol Symptoms: What Do They Mean?
Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research - Effect of cannabidiol on plasma prolactin, growth hormone and cortisol in human volunteers
The Permanente Journal - “Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series”
Neurotherapeutics - “Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders”