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Cortisol

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Updated January 15, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition:
Cortisol is a hormone in the body that reacts to stress. Normally, cortisol levels increase during stressful times and decrease when stress is not present.

Studies have shown that cortisol levels have an impact on the levels of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. When cortisol is high, the neurotransmitters' levels are low, and vice versa.

During depression, cortisol levels may remain high even during times of relaxation. The corresponding low levels of serotonin and dopamine have been shown to play a part in depression. Thus raising the level of one or both of these neurotransmitters may alleviate depression. Reducing the level of cortisol has been found to increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine.

High cortisol levels are also associated with a large number of other conditions.

References:

Heinz, A. et al. Relationship between cortisol and serotonin metabolites and transporters in alcoholism [correction of alcolholism]. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2002 Jul;35(4):127-34. 14 Jan 2010.

Field, T. et al. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2005 Oct;115(10):1397-413. 14 Jan 2010.

Pronunciation: KOR-tiz-all, KOR-tiss-all, KOR-tiz-ole, KOR-tiss-ole (all are correct)
Examples:
I have a consistent high cortisol level and many of the accompanying symptoms: bipolar depression, fatigue, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I have also gained a lot of weight in the middle of my body.
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