TikTok, the world's fastest-growing social media platform, is fuelled by content trends that take over our feeds and daily conversations.
Recently, users may have noticed an increase in health and wellness content advising how to manage high cortisol levels.
Welcome to #CortisolTok, where videos tagged #Cortisol have nearly 800 million views.
But why is everyone talking about it? And why is it getting blamed for poor health?
Let's take a look.
Table of Contents
What is cortisol?
All humans experience stress, and cortisol plays a pivotal role in how our bodies deal with it.
Cortisol is a human's main stress hormone, designed for long-term function.
It's an essential hormone for humans to survive because stress is an inevitable experience for all of us.
A human's immediate reaction to stress is adrenaline, which is a hormone that causes an increase in our heart rate and breathing patterns.
But it's short-lived, and that's when cortisol comes into play.
"Its main role is to prevent hypoglycemia, and allows us to have enough glucose in the blood to meet our energy demands," said Theresa Larkin, associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Wollongong.
"If you were experiencing starvation, to keep you alive cortisol is what will break down your stored energy ... it will keep your brain alive."
Cortisol's connection with weight, energy, metabolism, and sleep has made it prime for the latest health and wellness social media trend.
TikTok feeds have become full of content creators sharing their tips and insights about cortisol, often claiming the hormone is causing weight gain and other health-related issues.
But, like most health trends online, cortisol content needs to be critically examined.
Why is #Cortisol content everywhere?
We live in a time where TikTok is a guide to life for many.
Whether it be new recipes or learning how to better manage your money, video-sharing platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels offer seemingly infinite advice.
Stephanie Baker, author of Wellness Culture: How the Wellness Movement has been used to Empower, Profit and Misinform, said the atmosphere was ripe for health and wellness trends to bite.
"Following huge advancements in health over the past century, many consumers look for lifestyle hacks and changes they can implement to improve their lives," Ms Baker said.
Cortisol's role as a stress hormone might explain why it is trending — the world in 2023 is, by all accounts, a stressful place.
More recently, add in rising costs of living, climate change, and a housing crisis.
That's all pretty stressful.
What is being claimed about cortisol?
Content creators claim that high levels of cortisol are to blame for weight gain, anxiety, and fatigue.
Videos include captions like "I didn't believe it myself either until I started healing through a natural approach," followed by claims that "high cortisol levels cause acne, low sex drive, and extra weight in face and tummy".
One content creator claimed that high cortisol meant "your jowls will get puffier".
There are many videos that claim feeling light-headed, waking up during the night, and having excess weight around your stomach can all be blamed on one thing.
You guessed it ... high cortisol.
According to #CortisolTok, it's the cause of a lot of health problems.
But is it?
It’s important to be skeptical
"One of the misconceptions in these videos is that cortisol is bad," Dr Larkin said.
In fact, she said the presence of cortisol actually functions to help humans lose weight.
"It's often the fact that someone who has had chronic stress has a depletion of cortisol.
"It's actually low levels of cortisol that is more associated with weight gain," she added.
Claims about cortisol levels causing health problems, and advice on how to manage high cortisol, is a social media trend that Dr Larkin said ignores the real story.
"It's a really complex situation. Often the symptoms that people are blaming on cortisol are probably due to chronic stress and depression.
"So they're focusing on cortisol — when really it's the body's middle messenger."
The fact that humans are individuals with different health backgrounds is crucial to understanding why those encountering content about high cortisol levels need to be wary.
"This content oversimplifies many common health issues," Dr Larkin said.
There are also medically recognised conditions, like Cushing's disease or Cushing's syndrome, that are the result of too much cortisol production.
These conditions are difficult to diagnose and involve several steps of testing.
And in saying that, these tests are only requested by doctors in rare cases.
How can we look out for misinformation?
Health misinformation online can easily circulate with little regulation, and that can be dangerous.
Australian Medical Association president Steve Robson said a lack of health literacy across social media needs to be addressed.
"It is critical people make informed choices about their health, but social media is no replacement for the expert advice provided by doctors and other medical experts," he said.
Stephanie Baker said a lesser-known health topic, like cortisol and its impact on the body, is primed for a health and wellness trend like the one we're seeing now on TikTok.
"Often when new health trends emerge among lifestyle and wellness influencers online, they reflect discussions in the medical community that are at best popularised and at worst, misunderstood, and used to promote alternative products and services," she said.
So how can we scroll smarter?
Dr Larkin said the danger with social media and health and wellness trends is that while "people can be convincing, they can also be convincingly wrong".
So what should we be looking out for?
Considering the motive of the content creator is key before you take anything they say as gospel.
"Are they using social media for social, financial, or political gain?" asked author Stephanie Baker.
She said it's also important to query their expertise and look into their training and qualifications.
The increase in cortisol content on our social feeds is a strong reminder to approach health advice online with caution.
Like most things, it's more complex than we think.
"Health misinformation can cause real-world harms by encouraging people to consume dangerous products, and even refuse essential medicines," Ms Baker said.