Cortisol is one of the main hormones we make in response to stress. It is made in the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys. Cortisol gives us a boost of energy and has anti-inflammatory properties. Hans Selye created the General Adaptation Syndrome in 1946 to described how the body responds to stress (1).
During periods of acute stress, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline are released quickly. As these levels peak and being to decline, cortisol begins to rise. If a stress becomes chronic, cortisol stays elevated and provides energy while buffering inflammation. If the stressor is intense enough, lasts long enough, or adds to other stressors that are already present, a person’s cortisol with eventually crash. This is called adrenal insufficiency (2). Symptoms consist of low energy, increased inflammation, and pain.
The ultimate building block of cortisol is cholesterol. Cholesterol is also the building block of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. Because cortisol a stress hormone, we can think of it as a “survival” hormone.