Your body thrives on a complex pattern of interactions between hormones, the chemical messengers that influence everything from behavior and immune function to metabolism. Cortisol is one such hormone that plays a major role in your body’s response to stress, inflammation, and more.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It is produced from cholesterol by your adrenal glands, which are the triangle-shaped organs above your kidneys. This hormone is best known for triggering your “fight or flight” response in a stressful situation, though it does have many other far-reaching effects on body processes.
In addition to fueling the body’s stress signals, cortisol also plays the following important roles:
- Oversees the body’s use of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Regulates blood pressure
- Reduces inflammation
- Increases blood sugar
- Controls sleep cycle
- Prevents fatigue and brain fog
Cortisol Controls Your Body’s Response to Stress
Since the beginning of time, humans have faced dangerous, stressful, and high-risk situations that require immediate response. Before modern times, cortisol enabled early men to escape predators, protect themselves against violent enemies, and pursue prey for survival.
THE BODY’S NATURAL STRESS RESPONSE FOR SURVIVAL
You encounter a stressor
Your adrenal glands secrete cortisol
Cortisol prepares body for “fight or flight” by releasing excess glucose for immediate energy
Cortisol slows insulin production to prevent glucose storage
Cortisol narrows the arteries while heart rate increases, forcing blood to pump harder
You have the energy and focus you need to address your stressor
Your hormone levels return to normal
This is a potentially life-saving process in the right situations, but it becomes dangerous if hormone levels don’t return to normal. Cortisol’s “fight or flight” response energizes the body at the expense of all processes not needed for immediate survival. Extended periods of high stress prevent the body from functioning in a normal and healthy way.
Our busy and chaotic modern lifestyle presents very different threats than approaching tigers and hyenas once did. Nonetheless, your adrenal glands still produce cortisol in the same way, causing you to experience many more “fight or flight” stress triggers on a daily basis. This makes you vulnerable to chronic biochemical and hormone imbalances that undermine your overall health.
What Are Normal Cortisol Levels?
Like other hormones, cortisol levels fluctuate through the day. It typically peaks early in the morning and decreases until it hits its lowest levels around midnight.
|mcg/dL (blood serum)||ng/dL (saliva)|
|Morning, 6AM to 8AM||10 to 20||100-750|
|Afternoon, 4PM||3 – 10||<401|
Blood and saliva can both be used to test cortisol levels if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms and suspect that you might have a cortisol imbalance.
Symptoms of Cortisol Imbalance in the Body
Since cortisol influences many core body functions, you may experience a wide range of symptoms that indicate high or low cortisol levels.
Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels
High cortisol levels restrict normal reproductive, digestive, and immune functions. This doesn’t harm the body in a temporary “fight or flight” situation, but leads to serious health implications when the cycle of high cortisol production continues long-term. As a result, the symptoms of high cortisol levels are directly related to the body functions that cortisol shuts down.
Cortisol causes triglycerides to accumulate in fat cells deep in the abdomen. This visceral fat triggers even more cortisol production and causes weight gain throughout the stomach and hips. Cortisol also causes weight gain because it spikes high-calorie food cravings and stimulates the appetite, leading to overeating and excess glucose that becomes stored as body fat.
Weak Immune System
Cortisol helps reduce inflammation in the body, but this function causes more harm than good in chronic cases. Lifestyle factors like poor diet and stress trigger inflammation, which in turn stimulates cortisol production. The same functions that make it possible for cortisol to suppress inflammation also cause cortisol to suppress the immune system. This means that symptoms of high cortisol levels include the following:
- Greater susceptibility to colds and illnesses
- New food allergies
- Gastrointestinal problems like ulcers, IBS, and colitis
- Increased risk of cancer
Blood Sugar Imbalance
Cortisol automatically boosts glucose production and floods the muscles with pure glucose to provide immediate energy in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, the body steals from stores of protein to synthesize this glucose. It’s effective in an individual “fight or flight” response, but dangerous over time.
Elevated cortisol levels cause excess glucose production, which could increase the risk for type 2 diabetes. This is exacerbated by the fact that cortisol purposefully stunts insulin production. Chronically high cortisol levels place strain on the pancreas to produce enough insulin to process such large quantities of glucose, and the dangerous cycle of blood sugar imbalance continues.
Symptoms of Low Cortisol Levels
It’s possible to suffer from low cortisol levels as well, but not common. This rare condition is called Addison’s disease or adrenal insufficiency. Addison’s disease is an illness of the adrenal glands themselves, while adrenal insufficiency develops from hormonal imbalances. Symptoms of low cortisol levels include the following:
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of weight and appetite
- Low blood sugar and blood pressure
How to Test Your Cortisol Levels
A simple blood, saliva, or urine test can be used to determine your body’s cortisol levels:
- A blood test collects blood from a vein in your arm to test the amount of cortisol present. It’s best to take one test in the morning and another in the afternoon to adjust for cortisol’s natural fluctuations.
- A saliva test is done at home, right before bed when cortisol levels should be the lowest. If your saliva tests for high cortisol content, it indicates an imbalance that needs to be treated.
- A urine test quantifies the “free” cortisol in your body that isn’t bound to any protein. This requires a 24-hour sample, which means you capture urine in a special container every time you use the bathroom over a 24-hour span.
If your blood, saliva, or urine test indicates abnormal cortisol levels, your doctor will run further tests to determine the root cause and help you seek appropriate treatment. It’s often possible to remedy high cortisol levels with simple, safe, and natural methods.
How to Naturally Lower Your Cortisol Levels
High cortisol levels wreak havoc on your health, but simple lifestyle changes can help you take control of your elevated cortisol and reduce its associated symptoms. Even better, the natural ideas suggested below do more than balance your cortisol levels; they improve your overall health and quality of life.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Whole Foods
Cortisol fights inflammation, so taking steps to reduce your body’s inflammation will also reduce cortisol production. Try adopting an anti-inflammatory diet that includes the following components:
- Avoid processed foods
- Eat fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants
- Add fiber-rich foods
- Include healthy fats like salmon, nuts, and seeds
- Enjoy lean proteins like eggs and grass-fed beef
By replacing refined grains, added sugars, and empty calories with nutrient-dense whole foods, you can naturally reduce inflammation and kick cortisol production into a lower gear.
Explore Stress Management Techniques
Stress is unavoidable in our modern society, but you can still control your response to stress. By learning a few stress management techniques, you can minimize cortisol’s impact on your body functions and reduce how much cortisol the adrenal glands secrete in response to a stress trigger.
- Meditation: This ancient practice can take many forms. The ultimate goal is to train the body and brain to turn off the natural stress response and enhance relaxation. Even just 15 minutes of meditation each day can reduce symptoms associated with high cortisol levels.
- Acupuncture: Another ancient practice that aligns the body’s energy channels and supports relaxation.
- Deep breathing: This alternative to meditation restrains the nervous system’s stress response and stimulates the body’s natural relaxation instincts. Deep breathing can be done anywhere, at any time, making it the perfect response to high-stress situations.
Optimize Your Exercise and Sleep Habits
Your body is better prepared to respond to stress constructively and effectively when you are well-rested and healthy. Improving your exercise habits and getting more sleep are two powerful ways to rejuvenate your body and mind. These simple lifestyle improvements will help you tackle stressors so that cortisol levels automatically recalibrate instead of staying dangerously elevated.
The Bottom Line
Cortisol is an essential hormone for your most crucial body functions, but chronically elevated cortisol levels cause widespread health problems like weight gain, fatigue, mood swings, and a weakened immune system.
You can use a blood, saliva, or urine test to confirm the presence of high cortisol levels in your body. There are many different natural ways to bring your cortisol levels back under control and enjoy a life free from painful symptoms.