Have you been craving certain foods and gaining weight? Maybe you're fatigued and can't concentrate, then wake up in the middle of the night.

The latest TikTok wellness trend would have you believe high cortisol levels are to blame.

It's true that cortisol affects our weight, energy balance, metabolism and sleep. But so do thyroid hormones, appetite hormones and sex hormones, as well as diet and physical activity.

Cortisol also does more than this and regulates many other biological functions. It affects nearly all the cells of our body and is essential for survival.

When we crave food for comfort eating TikTok tells us to blame cortisol.()

Why is cortisol portrayed as bad?

Some of what is being blamed on cortisol are symptoms of chronic stress or depression — which makes sense, since these are linked.

Cortisol is the main "stress hormone" of the body. This might make people think cortisol is bad for them, but this is not the case.

Stress is an inevitable part of life, and our stress response has evolved as a survival mechanism so we can react quickly to dangerous situations. Both psychological and physical stresses elicit the stress response.

Cortisol is essential for a healthy stress response

Our immediate reaction to a sudden threat is the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands into our bloodstream. This instantly increases our heart rate and breathing rate so we can be ready to act quickly to escape or avoid danger. However, the adrenaline response is only very short-lived.

When a threat or stress persists for minutes rather than seconds, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. Its main role is to increase blood glucose (sugar) for energy.

Cortisol affects the liver, muscle, fat and pancreas to increase glucose production and mobilise stored glucose. This increases glucose to the brain so that we are mentally alert and to the muscles so we can move.

In a healthy and normal stress response, cortisol rises quickly in response to the stress and then rapidly reduces back to baseline levels after the stress has passed.

However, chronic stress and ongoing increased cortisol secretion are not healthy. Chronic stress can cause dysregulated cortisol secretion: when cortisol remains high even in the absence of an immediate stress.

It can take weeks for cortisol dysregulation to return to normal after chronic stress.

Chronic stress and ongoing increased cortisol secretion are not healthy.()

What’s the link with depression?

Emerging evidence suggests chronic stress and dysregulated cortisol may contribute to the development of depression. Our research team has shown that people with depression have, on average, higher cortisol than people who don't have depression. We also found that higher cortisol was associated with more negative thinking and lower quality of life.

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