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Cortisol – Effects, Application & Risks


Cortisol is a hormone that is essential for the human body. It is formed in the organism itself and mainly functions as a so-called stress hormone. Since it also affects the immune system, it is used in medicine, among other things, as an anti- inflammatory .

What is cortisol?

Cortisol , also known as hydrocortisone , is an endogenous hormone that is vital for the human and animal organism.

It is formed in the adrenal cortex. Cortisol is best known as a stress hormone. In addition, it has an influence on numerous processes in the body, such as blood sugar, lipid metabolism and the immune system . The cortisol level in the body varies and depends, for example, on the time of day.

It is generally highest in the early morning and reaches its lowest point around midnight. Certain life circumstances such as high stress levels or pregnancy can have a significant impact on cortisol levels, as can various diseases.

Pharmacological action

Cortisol has many important jobs in the body . For this reason, it must be artificially supplied to the organism if it is not able to produce it in sufficient quantities itself.

Among other things, the hormone is involved in regulating the carbohydrate balance with the help of various processes in the liver . The fat metabolism – especially the promotion of adrenaline and noradrenaline – requires cortisol for the optimal running of all processes, as well as the general protein turnover of the body. In addition, it can increase blood sugar levels.

In the gut and kidneys , the hormone is converted to cortisone , a related steroid hormone, with the help of oxygen . Cortisol also has a direct influence on the immune system. It can act on blood cell distribution and also suppress the immune system, making it very useful in medicine as an anti-inflammatory. Cortisol is primarily known as the stress hormone.

Together with the so-called catecholamines, which include adrenaline and dopamine , the cortisol level increases significantly in stressful situations and thus enables appropriate reactions. However, cortisol itself has a more sluggish effect than the catecholamines and thus also qualifies as a helper in gene expression: Here it is involved in the synthesis of proteins from genetic information.

Medical Application & Use

In medicine, cortisol is used for numerous purposes due to its versatility. The synthetic form used for this purpose, which is contained in various medications, is called hydrocortisone.

In high doses, it has an immunosuppressive effect, ie it suppresses the immune system. It is used in this regard to prevent strong reactions of the immune system, as may be necessary in some diseases. The development of inflammation can also be avoided in this way. Cortisol or hydrocortisone can be administered both internally and externally.

The former occurs, for example, in asthma , chronic bronchitis or rheumatic diseases. The anti-inflammatory effect can significantly alleviate the symptoms. Depending on the clinical picture and the individual case, cortisol or hydrocortisone is taken either orally or intravenously.

An external application in the form of ointments or tinctures takes place in neurodermatitis, allergic reactions or other inflammatory skin diseases. In most cases, symptoms such as itching , rash , pain or redness can be quickly relieved with the help of the medication.

Risks & side effects

Cortisol or the synthetic hydrocortisone administered in medicine offers numerous positive effects in different clinical pictures.

However, the hormone also has some side effects that should not be underestimated. Long-term intake of higher doses can lead, among other things, to weight gain , water retention or disturbances in the blood sugar level. Osteoporosis is also quite common as a later consequence of concentrated administration of cortisol/hydrocortisone. If the hormone is administered externally, the skin can become thinner over time and thus generally more susceptible to infections.

Furthermore, cortisol/hydrocortisone must not be discontinued abruptly after the therapy has been completed, as otherwise a so-called rebound reaction (a violent recurrence of the previous symptoms) can be triggered. Experts speak of a necessary “tapering” of the treatment.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.