All About Cortisol: The Stress Response and You

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. In most instances, it’s even good for you. But if too much stress is affecting your health, you may soon be able to say, "There’s an app for that." That’s because researchers and developers are designing new healthcare applications for smart phones that will measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

What Is Cortisol, and How Does it Work?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. Cortisol plays many roles; for instance, it helps regulate metabolism, influences blood pressure, and can act as an anti-inflammatory, according to the Society for Endocrinology. But it is perhaps best known for helping our bodies respond to real or perceived threats, such as life-threatening attacks by wild beasts or—more commonly these days—pressure at work, unexpected emergencies, and disasters.

During times of heightened stress, cortisol works with other hormones and the nervous system. For instance, when you’re stressed, adrenaline (another hormone) makes your heart beat faster and harder to increase circulation to your vital organs and muscles; this helps you deal with whatever has triggered the stress response. At the same time, cortisol increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream to provide energy. It also temporarily changes your mood, as well as digestive, reproductive, and other systems; this allows your body to focus vital resources and survive immediate danger.

This stress response is natural, healthy, and has been one of the human body’s survival mechanisms since cave man days. Back then, once you outran the lion, your stress response would simmer down again until the next threat.

The Stress Response Today

Today, however, you’re probably not trying to outrun lions: instead, you’re dealing with tight deadlines, cranky bosses, chronic sleep deprivation, overburdened schedules, and non-stop stimulation. But your body may respond to these common and less dangerous threats in the same way our ancestors responded to being chased by wild beasts—with the stress response. But frequently experiencing the stress response can be harmful: If it’s activated too frequently or is mismanaged, the body’s ability to maintain normal hormone levels is inhibited. Prolonged stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with multiple health problems, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, and heart disease; stress is also linked to diseases like diabetes.

Doctors sometimes order costly and time-consuming lab tests to measure patients’ cortisol levels. But the expense and time associated with these tests has led researchers to seek out faster, cheaper ways to measure cortisol. Now, new software and cell phone technology might make this test more affordable and accessible. According to research presented at a recent joint meeting of the International Society of Endocrinology and the Endocrine Society in Chicago, patients may soon be able to upload a saliva specimen through a special tube attached to their phones to measure cortisol and deliver results within minutes for about $5.

Managing Stress

The question is, once you know your stress hormones are too high, what can you do to lower them? The answers to that will be as individualized as the patient but will undoubtedly require a combination of stress management techniques, such as

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Talking with friends and loved ones
  • Enjoying a hobby

If you think your stress levels are off the charts or you’re concerned about your health, don’t wait for new technology before taking action. Talk to your doctor and start reducing stress in your life today.

Liesa Harte, MD, founder, Elite Care, reviewed this article.


"You and Your Hormones – Cortisol." Society for Endocrinology. Page reviewed September 2012. 

Joel R.L. Ehrenkranz, MD, Randall Polson, Ph.D. and Theodure Espiritu. "Point-of-Care Salivary Cortisol Immunoassay Using a Smartphone." Intermountain Healthcare, Murray, UT, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. 

"Adrenal Glands." University of Maryland Medical Center/University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. Page updated May 6, 2014. 

"Understanding the Stress Response." Harvard Mental Health Letter. March 2011.

"Five Tips to Help Manage Stress." American Psychological Association. 

Wust S, Wolf J, Hellhammer DH, Federenko I, Schommer N, Kirschbaum C. "The Cortisol Awakening Response - Normal Values and Confounds." Noise Health [serial online] 2000 [cited 2014 Aug 13]; 2:79-88. 

McEwen, B. "Stressed or Stressed Out: What Is the Difference?" J Psychiatry Neurosci 2005; 30(5): 315318. 

"Understanding Chronic Stress." American Psychological Association. Page accessed August 14, 2014.