What Does Cortisol do to Your Body When You Are Stressed?

While we want to believe that we are handling our challenges to the best of our ability, chronic stress can make us susceptible to a host of health issues. Insomnia, compromised immunity, high blood pressure, inflammation, and poor digestion are just a few of the problems that can develop as the body has to deal with high levels of stress.

How does stress affect us so? Upon encountering stressful situations, the body treats these occurrences as threats. In response, the stress hormone cortisol is released to energize the body for “fight or flight”. If that energy is not released through productive physical activity, cortisol levels will build up, causing imbalances that spill over into every body system.

The digestive system is the foundation of our health. It is even considered to be our second brain, producing more neurotransmitters than the brain inside the skull. The gut also produces most of the “happy chemical” serotonin in the body. Elevated levels of cortisol due to stress diminish gut health and our overall vitality in the short term and over time. Excess cortisol is often the culprit behind decreased nutrient absorption, bowel issues, heartburn, microbial imbalance, and weight gain.


You can help control cortisol levels by managing your eating habits, your activity as well as other ways. Here are a few tips to take charge of your health and high cortisol:

Adapt an anti-inflammatory diet with whole foods and herbs.

Much of today’s convenient foods contributes to elevated cortisol levels and inflammation. These foods and beverages are laden with refined sugars, sodium, and trans fats but low in fiber, healthy fats, and essential micronutrients. On the other hand, whole foods and adaptogenic herbs promote hormone balance and help you get and stay in shape. Nutrient-dense foods also provide greater sustained energy while you are awake and promote deeper rest while you sleep.

A low-glycemic diet that includes proteins, healthy fats, and phytonutrients will help lower cortisol and stabilize blood glucose. Make sure you consume more of these health-bolstering foods:

  • lean proteins such as grass-fed beef, fish, and eggs,
  • unrefined coconut or olive oil,
  • probiotic foods such as cultured or fermented vegetables, kefir, or yogurt,
  • adaptogenic herbs such as holy basil, licorice root, or medicinal mushrooms.

Exercise Consistently.

The regular physical activity provides an outlet for heightened cortisol levels. You can “fight or flight” to release the inner tension brought on by stress. Consistency will help your body manage stress better and build up your autonomic nervous system which controls stress and relaxation responses. Research suggests that regular exercise is a powerful way to control stress, assist metabolic functions, and balance hormones.

Perceived stress is a leading cause of elevated cortisol which can contribute to a plethora of health issues, including digestive ailments. A host of other problems can radiate from gut imbalances as well. Healthy foods and consistent exercise are potent allies that will help you fight back stress and enjoy a higher level of vitality as you face life’s challenges.