Adrenaline vs Cortisol: What's The Difference & Why it Matters

By Anna Meyer

July 19, 2023

You’ve heard the phrase “adrenaline junkie” but nobody uses the term “cortisol junkie”. That’s because there is a significant difference between adrenaline and cortisol. One of these two will significantly reduce your quality of life over time if it continues to control you. And the other might make you feel like you’re invincible and on top of the world. If you’re not sure which junkie gets the pleasant result, then read on to learn more about adrenaline vs cortisol and why it matters.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol or hydrocortisone is a steroid hormone that is produced in the cortex of your adrenal glands. It is important for many functions your body, including regulating blood pressure, blood sugar levels, memory formation, balancing the salt and water levels in your body, reducing inflammation, and regulating your sleep cycles.

Under normal circumstances, your body sporadically releases cortisol to facilitate these functions, which help to maintain your overall health. Cortisol release is also triggered by different types of stress and creates a series of reactions to help you deal with the stress.

These reactions include:

  • A release of excess glucose from your liver and a reduction of glucose uptake in your cells to provide you with more energy
  • An increase in the availability of resources to improve healing
  • The shutting down of non-essential functions like the digestive system

As you can see, in the right circumstances, cortisol can be pretty handy. Is it going to come in and fix a leaky faucet? Decidedly not. But it works wonders to keep you safe when it works properly.

It is normal to experience some stress and anxiety because of financial difficulties, a stressful job, mental or severe physical health issues, accidents, family conflict, or even crime. And, of course, life is moving faster than it ever has before. The first plane was invented in 1903, less than 70 years later we put a man on the moon.

Fast forward to today, and most of us are borderline cyborgs with all the technology we have access to. While technology has been a blessing in many ways, it also means we’re always “on” and constantly reacting to what’s happening around us . This inability to switch off is one of the major contributing factors to why we have higher stress and anxiety levels and consequently a higher prevalence of unbalanced cortisol levels now than we had in the past. While the saying goes, you can’t have too much of a good thing, it doesn’t apply to cortisol. When you are suffering from stress or anxiety, your body will continually release cortisol instead of brief “pumps” of cortisol throughout the day.

Instead of acting as a protective measure, excessive cortisol destroys your health and can cause a range of negative effects. Data shows that some of these effects put you at risk for developing graves disease, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and even gonadal dysfunction. Gonadal dysfunction is a fancy way of saying your sacred bits will not work like they’re supposed to. Think infertility, low testosterone, and erectile dysfunction.

Normal levels of cortisol have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body. But when you suffer from chronic stress and have chronically elevated cortisol, the cortisol dysfunction can block the anti-inflammatory effect and promote pro-inflammatory effects which cause pain and inflammation. So aside from losing your bedroom mojo, you’re also more likely to experience inflammation and pain. Life really likes to kick us when we’re already down, eh?

Now that you have the low-down on stress, how does cortisol differ from adrenaline? It’s easy to confuse the two hormones as they play in the same field, but for very different reasons.

Stress isn’t the only culprit, though. Cases of current anxiety have also been shown to cause elevated cortisol levels. In a study conducted by Vreeburg and colleagues, the researchers found that participants who had a current anxiety disorder had higher cortisol levels one hour after waking than participants who had no anxiety disorder.

Similarly, a study by Mantella and colleagues found that older adults with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) had a 40-50% increase in cortisol compared to older adults who didn’t have anxiety.

This means both anxiety and stress can cause elevated cortisol levels. And consequently a host of symptoms that will drastically affect the quality of your life. Plus, you’ll find yourself too scared to phone the local pizza joint for a pick-me-up because your hormones are playing you like a banjo.

But elevated cortisol levels aren't your only concern. Chronically low cortisol levels are a whole other beast that can also affect your health and well-being.

Low cortisol levels can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Low blood pressure and sugar
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

Low cortisol levels can also make it harder to wake up in the mornings. Since cortisol plays a role in regulating your sleep cycle and waking you up, low cortisol levels may make it harder to get out of bed in the morning. A lie in is great every now and again, but if you have to drag yourself out of bed every morning, something is amiss.

Usually, low cortisol levels are caused by a condition called Addison's disease, which develops when your adrenal glands can’t make enough cortisol. However, studies show long-lasting anxiety can cause low cortisol levels. Yes, we know. We just said anxiety causes elevated cortisol levels. But anxiety can also cause low cortisol levels. But not any old anxiety.

Studies have found that long-lasting anxiety disorders can cause low cortisol levels. Researchers theorize that long-term anxiety disorders can interfere with our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) aka our stress response system, and reduce the production of hormones like cortisol.

So if you’ve been dealing with anxiety for a long time, you’re at risk for low cortisol levels and a long list of symptoms to match.

So,whether you're trying to combat elevated cortisol or you’re trying to return your low cortisol levels to normal, getting your anxiety under control is crucial.

Now that you have the low-down on cortisol, how does cortisol differ from adrenaline? It’s easy to confuse the two hormones as they play in the same field, but for very different reasons.

What is Adrenaline?

Adrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in your adrenal glands that helps to gear you up for a threat to increase your chances of survival. It does this by increasing blood flow to your muscles and decreasing blood flow to non-essential functions like digestive processes.

Unlike cortisol, it is not released sporadically throughout the day. Instead, your body releases adrenaline into your bloodstream in response to danger, extreme stress, or excitement.

When adrenaline levels are high, you may feel more alert, have more energy, and are less sensitive to pain.

Other responses include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Heightened senses
  • Increased breathing because of expanded air passageways
  • Slowed digestion.

All these reactions prepare you for what your body thinks is a perceived danger you’re about to experience. Jumping out of an airplane may be thrilling but your body still perceives it as a danger, regardless.

In large amounts, adrenaline can have a negative impact on your health. If left unchecked, out-of-whack adrenaline levels can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, restlessness, trouble sleeping, a weakened immune system, depression and anxiety, and headaches. These health conditions can lead to a plethora of other health issues, including heart disease, which is why it is important to balance your adrenaline levels.

Can you have healthy adrenaline levels if your cortisol levels are balanced?

When you’re experiencing an extremely stressful or dangerous event, your body will release adrenaline in response. It will also release cortisol at a later stage to assist the adrenaline until the danger has passed. Cortisol’s function in this instance is twofold. First, it releases glucose to give you enough energy to deal with the stressor until it has passed. Second, it signals your brain to lower the level of the acute stress response.

If your cortisol levels are too low during an adrenaline-inducing event, your brain will not receive the necessary signal to lower the stress response. This cortisol imbalance will put you at risk for a survival response that runs rampant.

Balancing your cortisol levels is critical, as it will ensure that you have a healthy adrenaline response that returns to normal once the event has passed. While we can’t stop you from going bungee jumping in your free time, our Anxiety System may help to reduce stress and anxiety by balancing your hormones, so you can feel calm without the nasty side effects of pharmaceuticals.

What are the Differences Between Cortisol and Adrenaline?

Cortisol vs adrenaline - they both play important roles in your body. The fundamental differences between cortisol and adrenaline are the stimuli that promote the release of these hormones, the effect on the body, and the role they play in your overall health and well-being.

When working properly, cortisol starts the day off higher, and then levels come down as the sun goes down, to prepare for sleep.

It is also released during stressful and anxiety inducing events and periods in your life to help you deal with what is happening in the moment.

Adrenaline, in contrast, is released during dangerous or exciting moments and creates the right environment for you to either fight or flee from danger. Think of adrenaline as your emergency hormone. It helps you to get out of sticky situations but isn’t necessary for daily health and functions.

Because adrenaline and cortisol both respond to forms of stress and can have overlapping effects, it is possible to confuse the experience of high cortisol with adrenaline. The key point to remember is that adrenaline is released as a last resort to deal with a dangerous situation. If you are not in danger or excited, then you’re likely experiencing high cortisol.

If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you may wonder if you’re at risk for high cortisol. Thankfully, cortisol levels should return to normal after moments of excitement or danger. Adrenaline junkies seem to release more dopamine and less cortisol in response to dangerous activities.

Therefore, if you are an adrenaline junkie, you aren’t likely to be at risk of high cortisol. However, you may experience a “crash” after the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. This crash can cause you to feel fatigued, irritable, and depressed. Which is totally understandable, we’d also crash if we went from paragliding over the forest to returning to reality. To be fair, we’d probably crash when paragliding too, so we’ll have to live vicariously through you

How are Adrenaline and Cortisol Related?

Cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones that are produced and released in response to stress. Each of these hormones plays a vital role in protecting you from danger and, sometimes, helps you deal with acute stress. Cortisol also likes to appear when you’re experiencing anxiety because of a disorder like panic disorder, GAD, or agoraphobia.

In a study conducted by Dr. Maduka and colleagues, they found that examination stress in students significantly increased both the cortisol and serum adrenaline levels before the examination period. This shows that under severe stress, adrenaline and cortisol are both released and work together to manage the stressor.

In acute stress events, your body releases adrenaline first, which is followed by a delayed but sustained release of cortisol until the stress has passed. But let’s not forget, stress and anxiety tend to go hand in hand. While the study didn’t test for anxiety, test anxiety is fairly common with some studies finding over 50% of students experiencing anxiety before an exam.

Though stress and anxiety aren’t the same, they are deeply intertwined, and one often leads to the other.

Getting Your Cortisol Levels Balanced

While you may enjoy the thrill that comes from an adrenaline rush, even going out of your way to get your “fix”, there’s a good chance you don’t need to manage your adrenaline levels. But cortisol levels are another matter.

If your cortisol has been flying higher than the plane you’re planning to skydive from, then our Anxiety System may be the parachute you’ve been waiting for. From energy boosting benefits to stress and anxiety relief, our Anxiety System is designed to give you peace of mind and tranquility in a convenient lozenge for optimal absorption.

The last thing you want is to be a cortisol junkie. Living with elevated cortisol levels can have highly destructive effects on your health and wellbeing. So balance your hormones, reduce your stress, and combat some effects of being an unintended cortisol junkie

The Anxiety System


Say goodbye to stress, anxiety, and the side effects of pharmaceuticals with our Anxiety System. This hormone-free solution is your natural alternative to medications, rebalancing your hormones naturally and turning anxiety into calm, one lozenge at a time.

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