If you’re feeling super stressed, your cortisol levels might be higher than normal. Here’s how to tell if your stress hormones are affecting your everyday life, and what to do about it.
High cortisol is a common imbalance that can affect your health more than just making you feel anxious. Depression, fatigue and weight gain are just a few of the symptoms of high cortisol. If they persist, you’ll want to get your levels checked.
Read on to learn how cortisol works, and what you can do to naturally lower your levels.
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What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a primary hormone involved in our body’s stress response, which is why it’s known as “the stress hormone”.
On any normal day, cortisol plays many important and beneficial roles. It helps wake us up in the morning, maintains normal blood glucose levels, and provides vital energy to our muscles and brain. (1)
However, cortisol’s main role is to regulate our stress response. In essence, when we’re feeling threatened or facing danger, cortisol is released to provide us with a surge of energy needed to get away from the threat. This is also called the “fight-or-flight” response and has been hard-wired into our bodies as a survival mechanism. (2)
While this system is great at helping us survive, a problem arises when cortisol is chronically elevated due to abnormally high stress levels. It’s easy for your system to produce too much cortisol, as your body can’t tell the difference between an emotional threat (like your boss yelling at you at work) and an immediate threat to your life (like being chased down by a tiger).
In ancient times, people experienced dangerous situations only for a short period of time. Their cortisol levels spiked, the danger passed, and levels returned to normal. Now, however, we’re under a constant barrage of stress every day, which keeps our cortisol levels high.
6 Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels
Chronically high cortisol levels can cause a number of scary side effects. Check them out below.
1. Weight Gain (Especially Around Your Abdomen)
One of the key indicators of high cortisol levels is weight gain, especially around your stomach. While scientists aren’t definite on why exactly this is the case, studies show that people who have higher stress and cortisol levels also tend to have more belly fat. (3)
2. Breakouts and Skin Changes
Your skin is intricately linked to your stress levels and is often the first perceiver and target of the stress response.
In other words, stress and high cortisol levels immediately show up on your skin in the form of breakouts, dryness, inflammation and other negative skin changes. (4)
3. Mood Swings
High cortisol levels can cause your mood to shift as well. While researchers state that high cortisol isn’t always associated with depressed moods, there are studies that show cortisol can create negative mood states, alternating from anxiety to depression. One study showed that people with excessive cortisol secretion often have a depressed mood which returns to normal after cortisol is balanced. (5)
4. Changes in Sexual Function
Libido is also repressed in those with high cortisol levels. Studies show that since high cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight system) it can also increase fear and anxiety, even going so far as to cause erectile dysfunction. Because of this, researchers have mentioned cortisol may become a “useful index” for evaluating sexual function. (6)
If you find yourself feeling abnormally tired throughout the day, you definitely want to get your cortisol levels checked. Researchers have found that fatigue (the kind that can’t be alleviated with rest) is associated with salivary cortisol levels. (7)
It turns out high cortisol levels can also cause widespread inflammation throughout your body. (8) Even if you don’t experience inflammation in the form of skin problems, you might notice something may feel “off” or that you’re feeling unusually tired or run down.
5 Causes of High Cortisol Levels
So what exactly is going on that causes cortisol levels to skyrocket in the first place? We break it down below.
1. Chronic Stress
Stress is the number one cause of chronically elevated cortisol levels. This is because cortisol is released any time your body senses a threat (be it physical, emotional, or mental). If you’re constantly worried or stressed about something, your body is most likely not getting any breaks from cortisol release, causing it to stay elevated. (9)
As we saw earlier, depression and mood swings can be a symptom of high cortisol levels. In addition, it also appears that depression can also cause high cortisol levels. This is probably due to the psychological and emotional stress involved in depression, and the fact that depression often occurs after a significant, stressful event in your life. (10)
3. Exercising Too Much
While it can be a good thing to get in a weekly dose of intense exercise, studies show that too much high-intensity exercise can stress out your body to the point where your cortisol levels increase. On the flip side, moderate lower-intensity exercise doesn’t cause a rise in cortisol. (11)
4. Eating Disorders
Eating disorders (and even intense calorie monitoring in general) can also lead to increased cortisol levels due to the stress placed on your body and mind. You need a certain level of calories per day to carry out basic functions, and when this need is not met, your body feels threatened and releases cortisol. (12)
5. Severe Illness or Injury
Any type of severe injury or illness is not only going to increase the amount of stress your physical body is under, but also psychological stress. Since both are intense stressors, they naturally increase cortisol release. In addition, inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, and as we mentioned earlier, inflammation and cortisol levels are linked. (13)
What Happens When You Have Low Cortisol Levels?
While high cortisol is more common, low cortisol can cause Addison’s disease or hypopituitarism, which occurs when production of cortisol by your adrenal glands is too low.
Low cortisol levels can be caused by severe stress that damages the adrenal glands, either through chronic emotional stress, injury, or infection.
Symptoms you may have low cortisol include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Skin rashes and sweating
- High heart rate
- Low blood pressure
How to Test for Cortisol Levels
Your doctor can order blood and urine tests in order to test your cortisol levels, but saliva tests are usually the most popular method of testing.
During a blood test, your doctor will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. This test is usually done twice a day – once in the morning when cortisol levels are at their peak, and again around 4 pm when levels are lower.
A cortisol saliva test can usually be done at home, and your doctor will recommend or provide you with a kit for the test with instructions. The kit will include a swab to collect your sample and a container to store it.
For a urine test, your doctor will probably ask you to collect all urine during a 24-hour period, since cortisol levels vary throughout the day.
What Do Normal Cortisol Levels Look Like?
Cortisol levels can vary person to person, but normal morning cortisol ranges for children and adults are between five to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 138 to 635 nanomole per liter (nmol/L). In the afternoon, they can be from 3 to 10 ug/dl at 4 pm, and are usually less than 5 ug/dl after the usual bedtime. (14)
4 Ways to Naturally Lower Cortisol Levels
Now that you’re aware of the symptoms of high cortisol and what could be causing it, let’s look at natural ways you can help lower your levels.
1. Optimize Your Diet
Adopting an anti-inflammatory Paleo diet can do wonders for keeping your cortisol levels down. To help keep your blood sugar under control (which helps reduce inflammation), and to lessen stress on your body, avoid the following: (15)
- Processed foods
Instead, focus on these whole foods:
- Fresh veggies
- Sweet potatoes
- Wild-caught fish
- Grass-fed beef
- Pasture-raised chicken
- Nuts and seeds
2. Embrace Adaptogen Herbs
Adaptogens are herbs that help your body naturally manage anxiety. Studies show that they are able to reduce the effects of stress, while increasing attention and stamina. In addition, they also help boost your immune system to make you more resistant to stress in the first place. (16)
Some of the best adaptogen herbs include:
3. Reduce Stress
Of course, one of the best ways to lower cortisol levels is to reduce stress in your life. A few ways you can do this are:
- Meditation. Studies have shown that meditation helps reduce physiological and immune markers of stress and inflammation as well as helping to increase the perception of wellbeing. (17)
- Yoga. Also referred to as “moving meditation,” yoga is an excellent tool for reducing stress levels. Even practicing for as little as three times a week can have a significant effect on depression, stress, and anxiety levels. (18)
- Sleep. Be sure to get an adequate seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Studies show that lack of sleep results in elevated cortisol levels as early as the following evening. (19)
While too much exercise can raise cortisol levels, this is not to say you shouldn’t exercise at all! In fact, low-intensity exercise such as walking or yoga has been shown to reduce overall cortisol levels. In addition, exercise also produces feel-good hormones like endorphins, which reduces stress levels even more. (20)
Aim for three days a week of mild aerobic exercise and/or yoga to help reduce your cortisol levels.
The Bottom Line
Keep in mind that while high cortisol levels can be dangerous, cortisol itself isn’t necessarily your enemy. We need it daily to wake up from sleep, protect ourselves from danger, reduce inflammation, and various other vital body processes.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it never hurts to get your levels checked and reduce stress however you can.
(Read This Next: 6 Simple Ways to Boost Dopamine Levels, Mood and Energy)