The C word: What actually is cortisol? What does cortisol do?

The C word: What actually is cortisol? What does cortisol do?

Picture this: A notification from your ex pops up on your phone. Your heart rate increases. Your palms get clammy. You feel stressed. And you haven’t even opened it yet. That’s cortisol at work.

The C word: what actually is cortisol? what does cortisol do?

Maybe you’ve heard of it, but don’t actually know what it is. Cortisol is your body’s built-in alarm system. 

Cortisol is made in the two adrenal glands that sit on top of each kidney. They’re the ones that look like little fortune cookies. It gets released in certain circumstances and travels around the body: like when you wake up, exercise, and experience stress. Also during scary movies, work presentations, crying babies. It propels you into action, aka fight-or-flight. Heard of that? Cortisol stress is responsible. 

Cortisol effects: what does it actually do?

Cortisol is a one-babe-band. It’s responsible for so much and doesn’t even ask for credit.

There’s no easy way to put it. So excuse me while I put on my lab coat, extra-thick safety goggles, and get super sciencey for a minute. *ahem*

Although mainly known as the stress hormone, cortisol has a lot of other important functions. It:

  • Controls your blood sugar levels
  • Regulates your metabolism
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Helps with memory
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Regulates fertility
  • Controls salt and water balance
  • Regulates digestion

Cortisol also helps you react to and survive physical threats. When it’s released, it causes your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar to spike. These effects are lifesaving, if you’re being chased by a tiger.

So, what’s the problem with cortisol?

I hear you, babe. It all sounds pretty great, right? Well, in certain situations, it is.

The problem is that things like increased heart rate & blood pressure are happening not only from physical threats, but emotional threats, when they’re not needed. Like an angry email from your boss. Did your heart just skip a beat? 

Phones are a big cause of cortisol spikes. Cortisol levels rise when your phone is close by, when you hear it, or when you think you hear a notification, says professor David Greenfield. When you think about your phone, looking at it is one way to make the stress go away. Instant gratification, right? This can cause a cycle of stressing, checking, stressing, checking, eventually leading to chronically high cortisol levels.

And since the average babe spends about four hours a day looking at her phone: news feeds, likes, & the need to keep up with the Kardashians, that’s a lot of stressing & checking.

How are cortisol and stress connected?

When your body is on high alert, like when you accidentally liked your ex’s new girlfriend’s photo, other parts of your body go on strike. Like your reproductive, immune, digestive, and growth functions.

Once the danger passes, and you’ve unliked her photo, your body should return to normal. But when your body is under constant stress, these functions get consistently out of whack, affecting memory, mental health, skin, weight, and, sadly yes, cortisol affects sleep too.

A YouGov and mental health foundation survey found that 74% of babes have felt so stressed in the past year that they’ve been overwhelmed and unable to do daily tasks. The connection between cortisol and stress cannot be ignored. It’s a big deal.


What’s the link between cortisol and sleep?

One of cortisol’s most important jobs is managing your body’s daily circadian rhythm. Cortisol should be high in the morning, giving you energy and getting you out of bed, even when you’re hitting snooze and begging for “5 more minutes”.

As you go through your day (yoga, coffee, work, more coffee) it should decline, reaching low levels in the evening, so you can switch off and fall into deep sleep. Except babes in 2020 are buzzing at bedtime and feeling sluggish in the AM. When babes get less than 7 hours of sleep, cortisol takes a hit. Our bodies feel more stressed and there’s a higher chance of stress-related health conditions.


How does cortisol stress impacts your skin and causes acne?

Breakouts: High cortisol levels can make your sebaceous (fancy speak for oil) glands produce even more oil. Too much of it will cause pores to clog and breakouts to form. Cortisol and acne are a classic duo. 

Dehydration: A cortisol spike often goes hand in hand with an adrenalin spike. Adrenalin makes you sweat. If you’re not drinking water, sweat makes you (and your skin) dehydrated. Don’t be thirsty. 

Premature ageing: An increase in cortisol affects the ageing process, with more fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots. #letsbefrank, I think you’re beautiful at any age. I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Skin conditions: When you have high cortisol levels, your immune system gets put under stress and can cause inflammatory responses in your skin. 

Dandruff: Depending how different babes react to different hormones, cortisol can make your hair drier or oilier. Dermatitis resulting in scalp redness and flakiness can happen.


Check yourself before you stress yourself. 

In other words, here’s 6 ways to naturally lower cortisol levels.

#1 Stop scrolling.
Have a phone-free hour when you get up every day to allow your cortisol levels to rise gently, rather than spike as soon as you scroll. Same at the end of the day, reduce cortisol levels. 

Do it during the day too. Get up at lunch and stay away from your desk, iCals, and slack. Keep your phone out of sight while you’re working or brunching.

#2 Stare at a tree.

A daily dose of nature helps reduce cortisol. Go to a local park to get some for at least 5 minutes, until you feel calmer. Or until a mysterious stranger stops to ask for directions and you fall madly in love. 

#3 Clear your commute.

Do you reply to emails before you get to the office? And then again on the way home? Don’t do that, babe. If you’re going to feel stressed from work, at least feel it at times you’re getting paid. Save your commute for meditating, music, podcast, or phoning a friend.

#4 Make time to wind down.

Like you’d schedule an appointment with a doctor or a date with a babe, schedule time for yourself every night. It can be stretches or a bath. Winding down stops you burn the candle at both ends. Burn just one end, while you soak with my new sleep scrub & soak.

#5 Move your booty.

Exercise like yoga, or dancing naked in your bedroom, can help lower cortisol levels. I prefer the latter.

#6 Cortisol and sleep are linked.

Getting more restful sleep isn’t easy, but it’s a long-term fix. Even if you can’t sleep for 7-9 hours, try to get more quality sleep. Go to bed at the same time every PM and set your alarm for the same time in the AM. Yes babe, even Saturday morning.

But when you’ve tried everything and all else fails, call a babe for a sleepover. Or call me. That way, we can go through it together.


Love frank



The C word: What actually is cortisol? What does cortisol do?