Chances are, if you’re living in the 21st century and reading this article, you’ve experienced your fair share of stress.
When struggling under constant pressure is just a typical weekday, you might not even notice how all that stress is affecting your body … but if it continues unaddressed, it can spell big consequences for your health down the line.
If you think about it, humans were simply not meant to be so constantly stressed out. Sure, our ancestors had their fight-or-flight triggered when they were fending off an attack or hunting down a wild animal for food, but they weren’t dealing with the constant stress that comes from fighting off the disapproval of an overbearing boss or balancing their finances.
All that stress can throw your hormones out of whack, especially your cortisol.
So let’s talk about cortisol: what it is, how it works, and why keeping your levels at a healthy rate matters.
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The Lowdown on Cortisol Levels
Chronic stress is a common problem that can lead to elevated levels of your stress hormone cortisol.
Elevated cortisol was meant to be a short-term response to stress, but when it’s chronic it can lead to confusion, inability to focus, weight gain, and many other undesirable side effects.
When it comes to cortisol levels, “normal” isn’t always “optimal,” so it’s important to get tested and know where you stand.
You can either use medication or natural approaches to manage stress and lower your cortisol.
What is cortisol, in 30 seconds?
Cortisol is our “stress hormone” — it’s literally responsible for helping us respond to danger. When we’re faced with a potentially dangerous situation, our bodies release a rush of cortisol, which quickly makes changes to our metabolism so we have access to a quick burst of energy.
In essence, cortisol helps to keep us alert and alive in dangerous situations — always a good thing!
But here’s where it becomes a problem: when those “dangers” happen around the clock, like so many of us experience with our modern-day woes, that 24/7 fight-or-flight response starts to have a major impact on our health.
So yes, you definitely can have too much of a good thing.
High cortisol symptoms
Because your stress response involves nearly every system in your body, the effects of high cortisol are equally far-reaching. Some clues that your cortisol levels are too high include:
Suppressed immune system
What’s worse, cortisol’s effect on metabolism means that it controls how your body uses fat and sugar for energy, so long-term cortisol imbalance can contribute to problems like weight gain and heart disease that can impact your quality of life and, in the worst cases, shorten your life span.
What about low cortisol levels?
It’s not as common as high cortisol, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, your body might also produce too little cortisol, and that can come with its own set of problems. Some symptoms of low cortisol include:
Unexplained weight loss
Since an underproduction of cortisol could mean that there’s something wrong with the glands that produce your hormones, it could indicate a more serious problem like Addison’s disease, which is why it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor if you think you might have an issue.
The relationship between cortisol and melatonin
Chronic stress can quite literally keep you up at night, and it’s more than just the thoughts running around in your head. Cortisol also plays a big role in your sleep cycle, so in any conversation about cortisol, it’s also worth bringing up how it affects your sleep along with its “opposite” hormone: melatonin.
Under normal circumstances, cortisol and melatonin are both released at specific times in the night due to your circadian rhythm, or your biological “internal clock.” Melatonin levels start to rise in the evening, signaling to your body that it’s time to wind down and hit the hay. Cortisol levels, on the other hand, start to rise in the early morning hours, getting your body ready to wake up.
So one of the most common indications of a cortisol imbalance could present itself in your sleep: if you have too much cortisol, you might wake up more frequently in the night, or if you have too little cortisol, you might have a hard time waking up in the morning at all.
About your belly: your “stress hormone” might be causing it.
That extra cushion around your belly could also be your cortisol levels talking.
This weight gain can happen for a couple of reasons:
Cortisol messes with your blood sugar. When your body secretes cortisol, it limits the amount of insulin your body makes. This blocks sugar from getting into your cells so that it stays in your blood and can be used for quick energy.
Unfortunately, over time this can lead to overeating as your body tries to get more sugar back into its cells for fuel.
It can make you crave (crappy) food. You’re probably not going to be craving carrots and celery either, and if you’re a stress eater, you know this to be true. Stress can make you crave heavier “comfort” foods which can lead to weight gain.
Stress can also make you carry more weight in your midsection. Cortisol also has a specific and upsetting effect on your belly fat. It can take your stored fatty acids and relocate them to your visceral fat, which surrounds the organs in your abdomen, leading to weight gain around your middle.
What’s considered “normal” for cortisol?
According to UCSF, a normal cortisol level result for a blood test taken at 8 am in the morning would fall in the range of 5 to 25 mcg/dL.
However, this should be taken with a grain of salt. These guidelines were set by the American Endocrine Society and the European Society of Endocrinology but come with some pitfalls: namely, that the guide is intended to diagnose diseases like Cushing’s Disease, a disorder where cortisol levels are extremely elevated due to a tumor or corticosteroid medication.
So while these guidelines are super helpful for determining whether or not you have a disorder, it isn’t necessarily the best judge for determining whether your cortisol levels are optimal for your health.
Okay, so let’s forget “normal.” What’s “optimal” for most people right now?
According to studies, the optimal cut-offs%2C%20respectively.) for a morning cortisol level would actually fall more accurately between 3.3 mcg/dL and 13.8 mcg/dL. Any less, and you’re at risk for adrenal insufficiency. Any more, and you may be experiencing adrenal fatigue as your hormones overproduce.
What throws off cortisol levels?
Chronic stress could be a huge reason that your cortisol levels are elevated.
Remember, your fight-or-flight response was meant to help you respond to acute dangers. When the stressful stimuli are constant, your cortisol levels don’t have a chance to decrease and reverse those metabolic changes that are meant to be for the short-term only.
If chronic stress isn’t the problem, there could be an underlying medical issue. It might indicate a problem with your pituitary gland, aka the gland in your brain responsible for sending signals to secrete hormones, or it could mean that something’s wrong with your adrenal glands, which actually secrete the hormones.
How can you test your cortisol?
Timing is important here. Your cortisol levels will naturally fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest reading peaking earlier in the morning and then falling in the afternoon or evening and bottoming out around midnight.
Traditionally, you would schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider, who would draw blood to be tested at different points in the day.
However, there’s a more convenient option: Base. This at-home hormone test allows you to take your cortisol readings at different times of the day from the comfort of your home without having to drive to your health care provider.
Even better: Base’s TrackStress Test can give you a comprehensive look at all the different markers that are affected by stress and map out how you can fix it with data-driven solutions.
What doesn’t work that you might have been trying?
First thing’s first: ignoring whatever’s stressing you out usually won’t make it go away.
If you can’t control what’s stressing you out or remove yourself from the situation, explore healthy ways to cope with it, rather than letting it eat away at you and bring your health down in the process.
No “miracle” foods can lower your cortisol either — although it definitely helps to be eating a balanced diet so that your body is fully equipped to handle the damage that comes from stress. So that chocolate bar might temporarily make you feel better, but it’s not going to reverse the damage that stress has on your body.
The relationship between CBD and cortisol
One promising option to explore if you’re dealing with high cortisol levels is CBD.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound extracted from the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, another cannabis compound, CBD is not psychoactive, so it won’t get you high. What it can do, though, is combat the effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels - at least according to some research.
It’s still a relatively new field of study, but research so far has shown that CBD may play a role in slowing down cortisol secretion. This could be because cortisol is catabolic (simply put, it breaks down your body tissues for energy), while CBD is anti-catabolic (it prevents that breakdown).
There’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence to back up CBD - many people cite using CBD for stress relief, and it’s been proven to help with poor sleep quality, another common complaint of the chronically stressed-out.
So it could definitely be worth a shot if you’re looking for stress relief!
How to lower cortisol with medication
There are two different kinds of medication your health care provider might prescribe to lower your cortisol:
Medications that control the production of cortisol by the adrenal gland, like ketoconazole, mitotane, and metyrapone z
Cortisol blockers like Mifepristone, which block the effects of cortisol on your tissues
How to naturally lower cortisol levels
If medication isn’t your jam, you’re in luck: there are plenty of natural solutions for lowering your cortisol levels as well.
Adjusted sleep schedule: The release of cortisol coincides with your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal “clock” for all things biological. As you sleep, the amount of cortisol in your body starts to rise until it peaks in the morning, then it gradually declines as the day goes on. But poor sleep can disrupt your cortisol levels. Make an effort to get into a regular sleeping schedule if you aren’t already.
Being outdoors: There’s nothing like a little fresh air and sunshine to make you feel better - seriously. One study found that even 20-30 minutes spent outdoors and in nature led to major drops in cortisol levels. So carve some time out every day to disconnect and spend some time in the great outdoors.
Healthy carbs with your last meal: Yes, eating carbs might be the answer here! (How often do you hear that one?) Turns out that low-carb diets can actually cause even more stress to your body, while eating high-quality carbohydrates is a great way to reduce your elevated cortisol levels. So don’t be afraid to include nutritious whole grains, fruits, and veggies in your meal plan.
Gentle exercise: Sometimes, trading in your mental stress for physical stress can do the trick in lowering your cortisol levels. You don’t want to go overboard, though. Studies show that, while gentle forms of exercise like long walks can help to reduce your cortisol levels, more intense workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can actually lead to cortisol spikes. Keep your movements gentle and relaxed for the best results.
Adaptogens: Adaptogens are medicinal herbs that have been used for centuries as naturopathic treatments, and for good reason: science is proving that they’re effective for managing your stress response. Adaptogens like ashwagandha have been proven to help increase the effectiveness of your adrenal glands, which means you’re preventing the overproduction of cortisol.
Meditation: Meditating does more than keep you centered — these mindfulness exercises are helping on a biological level as well. Regular meditation helps you manage stress and therefore lower your cortisol levels, so it’s well worth it to dedicate a couple of minutes to peace, quiet, and reflection.
Consistently elevated levels of cortisol are a problem — and knowing that they’re high is part of the solution.
We’re used to being stressed, unfortunately, so much so that you might not even notice that it’s becoming a problem for your health.
Using Base is a convenient solution for evaluating just how much that stress is impacting your health. By analyzing your cortisol levels and guiding you through a customized and data-driven plan to improve them, you’ll have a clear understanding of the relationship between you, your stress, and your health.