Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Woman with bloated stomach due to cortisol.

Woman with bloated stomach due to cortisol.
beginning of content

The role of cortisol in the body

3-minute read

Cortisol is a hormone that is mainly released at times of stress. Cortisol has many important functions in the body. Having the right cortisol balance is essential for human health and you can have problems if you produce 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:

  • the body respond to stress or danger
  • increase the body’s metabolism of glucose
  • control 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 gland. 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?

The 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 anabolic steroids to build muscles, without a doctor’s prescription. This is risky. Anabolic steroids are different to corticosteroids.

Are there any side effects of corticosteroid therapy?

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

  • thinning skin
  • osteoporosis
  • weight gain, especially around the face, and increased appetite
  • high blood sugar or diabetes
  • rapid mood changes, feeling irritable and anxious
  • an increased chance of infections
  • Cushing's syndrome
  • eye conditions, such as glaucoma and cataracts
  • depression or suicidal thoughts
  • high blood pressure

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Hormones – cortisol and corticosteroids - Better Health Channel

Cortisol helps to maintain blood pressure, immune function and the body's anti-inflammatory processes.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Corticosteroid injections - myDr.com.au

Corticosteroids are medicines used to treat inflammation. Depending on the condition, steroid injections can relieve pain for several weeks to months.

Read more on myDr website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Steroids

Steroids are drugs modelled on the natural steroid hormone cortisol that is produced in our bodies.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Medicines used to treat acute asthma - Asthma Australia

People with asthma are sometimes prescribed short courses of oral corticosteroid in tablet or liquid form, such as prednisolone, to help regain asthma under control during a flare-up or ‘asthma attack’.

Read more on Asthma Australia website

Addison’s disease | HealthEngine Blog

Addison's disease of the adrenal glands impairs glucocorticoid, mineralocorticoid and sex steroid production, causing muscle weakness and other symptoms.

Read more on HealthEngine website

Medicines and Devices - Asthma Australia | Nation's Peak Consumer Body

There are a range of medicines amd devices available for people with asthma to manage and control their symptoms such as relivers and preventers.

Read more on Asthma Australia website

Asthma treatments - myDr.com.au

Asthma treatment involves working with your doctor to create an asthma management plan, taking asthma medicines as needed, avoiding asthma triggers where possible and following lifestyle advice.

Read more on myDr website

Common Concerns - Asthma Australia

It’s common to have concerns when living with asthma, especially when your experience lifestyle changes. We answer your concerns on changing asthma medications, pregnancy and allergic reactions.

Read more on Asthma Australia website

COPD: treatment and management - myDr.com.au

Although COPD cannot be cured, there are measures that can be taken that should relieve symptoms, slow progression and prevent complications.

Read more on myDr website

Adrenal Insufficiency - Hormones Australia

It is advisable to wear a medical alert bracelet with information, such as “give hydrocortisone” to inform medical attendants that you need medication...

Read more on Hormones Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo