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Woman with bloated stomach due to cortisol.

Woman with bloated stomach due to cortisol.
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The role of cortisol in the body

Cortisol is a hormone, which is mainly released at times of stress and has many important functions in your body. Having the right cortisol balance is essential for human health and you can have problems if your adrenal gland releases too much or too little cortisol.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of each kidney. When released into the bloodstream, cortisol can act on many different parts of the body and can help:

  • your body respond to stress or danger
  • increase your body’s metabolism of glucose
  • control your blood pressure
  • reduce inflammation.

Cortisol is also needed for the fight or flight response which is a healthy, natural response to perceived threats. The amount of cortisol produced is highly regulated by your body to ensure the balance is correct.

What triggers the adrenal glands to produce cortisol?

Cortisol production by the adrenal glands is regulated by the pituitary glands. The pituitary is a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain that is sometimes referred to as the "master gland" because of its wider effects on the body.

When you wake up, exercise or you’re facing a stressful event, your pituitary gland reacts. It sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce just the right quantity of cortisol.

What happens when you produce too much or little cortisol?

Your body usually produces the right amount of cortisol. In a condition such as Cushing’s syndrome, it produces too much. In a condition such as Addison’s disease, it produces too little.

Symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  • weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face
  • thin and fragile skin that is slow to heal
  • acne
  • for women, facial hair and irregular menstrual periods.

Symptoms of not enough cortisol include:

If you experience any of these symptoms, your doctor may suggest you have a blood test to measure your cortisol levels.

What are corticosteroids?

If your body does not produce enough cortisol, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids for you. Corticosteroids are synthetic versions of cortisol that can be used to treat a variety of conditions including:

  • inflammatory conditions (such as asthma)
  • Addison’s disease
  • skin conditions (such as psoriasis).

Some people take them to build muscles, without a doctor’s prescription. This is risky.

Are there any side effects of corticosteroid therapy?

Because corticosteroids are powerful medications, side effects are quite common. These may include:

If you experience these side effects, it is important to talk to your doctor before stopping your medication.

Last reviewed: June 2016

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Found 43 results

Cortisol - Lab Tests Online AU

To help diagnose Cushings syndrome or Addisons diseaseor as part of a test for pituitary function or adrenal function (Synacthen test)

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

Cushing's syndrome - Lab Tests Online AU

Cushings syndrome is a group of signs and symptoms caused by the body producing too much cortisol from the adrenal glands. There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. These glands are triangular in shape. The outer layer of the adrenal glands called the adrenal cortex produces not only cortisol but also aldosterone and the adrenal androgens, mainly dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Cushings syndrome can also be caused by a patient taking too much of a synthetic glucocorticoid (a steroid like cortisol) for another clinical condition and by other rare causes (see below).

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

ACTH - Lab Tests Online AU

To diagnose adrenal and pituitary diseases such as Cushing's syndrome, Cushings disease, Addison's disease, adrenal and pituitary tumours; usually done as a diagnostic test once an abnormal cortisol level is detected

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

DermAid 1% Solution Topical solution - myDr.com.au

DermAid 1% Solution Topical solution - Consumer Medicines Information leaflets of prescription and over-the-counter medicines

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Tests - Lab Tests Online AU

Symptoms such as hyperpigmentation, weakness, low blood pressure, and salt cravings may cause a doctor to suspect adrenal insufficiency, especially if these symptoms appear to worsen during periods of stress. Laboratory tests are used to determine whether adrenal insufficiency is present, to distinguish between primary and secondary insufficiencies, and to try to determine the underlying cause of the condition. Tests are also ordered to evaluate a patients electrolyte balance, glucose level, and kidney function. During an Addisonian crisis, they are ordered to determine the severity of the imbalances (the glucose and sodium will often be low, the potassium high) and to monitor the effectiveness of treatment.

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

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