Sick and tired of being sick and tired? You might want to take a look at your cortisol levels.

After dealing with a pandemic, financial crises, and constant shifting landscapes in work and life, it’s no surprise that people everywhere are dealing with burnout. Adaptogens, meditation, mindfulness, and self-care are quickly becoming hot trends as we struggle to cope with the fallout of constant, never-ending stress.

Behind those physiological symptoms of burnout is a biological one. That constant stress and anxiety could be coming hand-in-hand with elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for your stress response. Here’s why lowering those cortisol levels is so important (and how to do it).


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Takeaways:

  • The hormone cortisol is responsible for helping you deal with stress, but cortisol levels that are too high can lead to consequences for both your physical and mental health.

  • Balancing cortisol levels can usually be accomplished with a combination of stress relief techniques and an increased intake of necessary nutrients.

  • At-home testing is one of the best ways to understand your cortisol ranges and make targeted plans to get them where they need to be.

What are healthy cortisol levels?

There are different ranges for healthy cortisol levels depending on whether you’re testing via blood or saliva sample. When it comes to blood samples, most healthcare providers will define healthy cortisol levels as falling between 5-25 mcg/dL when taken first thing in the morning.

However, that’s not always the end of the story, and “healthy” does not always equal “optimal” when it comes to cortisol. While that range can do a good job of identifying whether you’re dealing with an adrenal issue like Cushing syndrome or Addison’s disease, it doesn’t necessarily reveal whether your cortisol is at the best level for daily healthy living.

Cortisol results will also depend on the method of testing used. In order to diagnose adrenal conditions like Cushing syndrome or Addison’s disease, you would get your cortisol measured after stimulating its production via adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone that controls your production of cortisol. If you just wanted to get your cortisol levels tested to gauge whether or not you’re dealing with issues from chronic stress or adrenal fatigue, this step wouldn’t be necessary.

So in other words, a medical test might tell you that your cortisol levels technically fall within the healthy range, which clears you from immediate adrenal health concerns, but it doesn’t mean that the hormonal consequences of high cortisol levels won’t hurt you in the long run.

Chronic stressors and constant high cortisol levels can lead to consequences like anxiety, depression, brain fog, diminished sex drives, muscle tension, headaches, weight gain, and more. So how can you stop stress from taking over your life and harming your health in the process?

The answer: you might not be able to turn your back on all that stressful stimuli, but you could help your body deal with the stress and lower your cortisol levels with a mix of supplementation and behavioral changes.


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Studies on how supplements impact cortisol levels

When you think about ways to bring about some much-needed stress relief, it probably includes a lot of behavioral changes: fixing your sleep schedule, meditating, exercising, practicing deep breathing, etc.

However, there is more and more interest in using supplements to lower stress and bring cortisol levels back to normal. In fact, there are several supplements and compounds that have piqued the interest of researchers looking for ways to solve the cortisol crisis.

Here are some takeaways from current research:

  • No surprises here: a healthy, balanced diet could potentially help you deal with skyrocketing cortisol levels. A paper published in the European Food Research and Technology journal found that increasing your intake of some key nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins could play a role in managing cortisol levels.

  • Adaptogenic herbs have started trending in recent years as a potential solution to burnout and adrenal fatigue. These medicinal herbs, some of which have been used for thousands of years, are thought to help your body deal with stress and lower cortisol levels in a number of ways like increasing the effectiveness of your adrenal glands.

  • The mineral magnesium also seems to have an inverse relationship with stress. Some studies found that magnesium deficiencies tend to be linked with higher cortisol levels and vice versa.

Is low cortisol good?

Even though high cortisol levels are often found to be the culprit behind some of our modern-day woes like brain fog and sleep deprivation, it’s worth noting that the hormone cortisol in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. After all, your body needs a certain level of stress for a reason - the direct consequence of a cortisol release is the activation of your “fight or flight” response which keeps you alert and ready for action in dangerous situations.

So you don’t want to have low cortisol all the time. In fact, your cortisol levels being too low too often could also be a sign that there’s something wrong on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Some theorize that the constant overproduction of cortisol by your adrenal glands can lead to adrenal fatigue, a condition in which your adrenals can no longer produce a sufficient amount of hormones to keep up with all the things you have to deal with on a daily basis.

So of course you would want to lower your cortisol levels if they are too high. However, you don’t want to eliminate it completely - just get it in that optimal range.

Range of cortisol levels throughout the day

Your cortisol levels aren’t going to be steady all day long. Rather, the natural release of cortisol in your body follows a predictable schedule based on your circadian rhythms.

When you first wake up in the morning, your cortisol levels should be fairly low. They’ll begin to rise throughout the morning as you start waking up and getting along with your day. It should then peak around midday, then slowly decline as evening approaches and your body starts making notes that it’s getting dark and approaching bedtime.

So because your cortisol levels fluctuate based on the hour, accurate analysis of your cortisol levels usually requires testing at multiple points in the day.

What is considered a low cortisol level?

The lowest your cortisol levels should be is roughly 5 mcg/dL when it’s taken early in the morning. If you’re constantly running at this low cortisol level, it could be a sign that you need to visit your doctor and analyze whether you’re experiencing a medical condition that points to adrenal insufficiency.

Coffee and cortisol

If there are two things that a busy modern person has a constant supply of in their life, it’s stress and coffee. It’s a vicious cycle: you’ve got a ton of work on your plate and stuff you gotta get done, and that means turning to coffee to stay awake, alert, and productive. But unfortunately, that excessive caffeine intake is probably not helping you with your cortisol problem.

It happened to one of Base’s own, Grace. As she explained in an interview about her cortisol levelswith founder Lola Priego, Grace took a Base Sex Drive test and learned that her cortisol levels were sky-high. One of the first points that Base’s doctor recommended was to decrease her caffeine intake since the energizing effect of caffeine also comes with a cortisol spike. In Grace’s case, where she was drinking 40+ ounces of coffee a day, that spike was pretty significant.

So as impossible as it might sound to the stressed-out workaholic, stepping away from the espresso machine might be the first step in managing those cortisol levels. But there is hope for those people who want to maintain their productivity level without the added stress and anxiety of coffee. Nootropics, otherwise known as “smart drugs,” are supplements that are becoming increasingly popular for helping people hone in and increase their productivity. Many nootropics are made with natural ingredients like lion’s mane mushroom and adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, which have the added benefit of lowering your cortisol levels while keeping you focused.

CBD is another popular one. This cannabis plant component isn’t psychoactive, so it won’t get you high. But what scientists are discovering CBD can do is slow down your cortisol secretion. In fact, some people even swear by pairing their cup of joe with a side of CBD to get that energy boost without the anxiety.

So even though the work-cortisol cycle can sometimes feel impossible to break, changing up your focusing aids could help tackle both the stress and the stressors that are causing it (looking at you, impending deadlines) all at once.

Low-calorie diets increase cortisol

Another vicious cycle many of us find ourselves in is the power struggle between dieting and chronic stress.

If your body weight is a source of stress for you, you might start dieting and cutting calories in an effort to get to your goal weight. But in a cruel and ironic twist, your body might find that calorie restriction distressing, and studies have found that calorie restriction could actually lead to increased cortisol levels. It also doesn’t help that the act of dieting itself is stressful - it’s not easy tracking your calorie intake and making big lifestyle shifts!

Since elevated cortisol levels can get in the way of your weight loss and have even been linked to weight gain, dieting on its own can actually become both a biological and psychological roadblock to your weight loss attempts when the hormonal imbalance is not addressed.

How to test cortisol levels at home

Because your cortisol levels are constantly fluctuating throughout the day, the only way to get an accurate cortisol level reading is to take samples multiple times a day.

Base’s Stress Test makes this easy to do from the comfort of your own home. You simply collect your samples at different points in the day and ship them off to Base to be analyzed. In return, you’ll receive results that break down your cortisol levels, tailored suggestions for improving them, and follow-up so you can see exactly how you are improving on a biological level.

Stress might not always be avoidable, but high cortisol levels can be. Knowing where your cortisol levels are now lets you make a smarter, more informed plan on how to stop the stress from taking over your life.


WORRIED ABOUT YOUR CORTISOL LEVELS?

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Related posts:

  1. What should my cortisol levels be? The ultimate guide to the stress hormone and how to improve it

  2. The relationship between your hormones, anxiety, and caffeine

  3. Arielle Lorre on stress, burnout, and rising to the challenge

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