How does the body control cortisol levels?

The body possesses an elaborate feedback system for controlling cortisol secretion and regulating the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream.

  • The pituitary gland, a small gland at the base of the brain, makes and secretes a hormone known as adrenocorticotrophin, or ACTH.
  • Secretion of ACTH signals the adrenal glands to increase cortisol production and secretion.
  • The pituitary, in turn, receives signals from the hypothalamus of the brain in the form of the hormone CRH, or corticotropin-releasing hormone, which signals the pituitary to release ACTH.

Almost immediately after a stressful event, the levels of the regulatory hormones ACTH and CRH increase, causing an immediate rise in cortisol levels. When cortisol is present in adequate (or excess) amounts, a negative feedback system operates on the pituitary gland and hypothalamus which alerts these areas to reduce the output of ACTH and CRH, respectively, in order to reduce cortisol secretion when adequate levels are present.

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