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Cortisol levels: the good, the bad and how to reduce them

Cortisol levels: the good, the bad and how to reduce them

Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone which is released by your adrenal glands. It surges in response to many different sorts of stress and is triggered from your brain as your sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight mode.

What does cortisol do to your body?

The short-term release of cortisol is helpful in protecting you from danger, as you can quickly react to a situation. Cortisol, which is released by the adrenal gland, is an essential hormone which affects nearly every organ and tissue and plays many roles such as:

  • Regulating your body’s stress response
  • Suppressing inflammation
  • Regulating your blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Controlling your sleep cycle
  • Helping to control your body’s use of fats, carbohydrates, proteins or metabolism

However, when you experience a prolonged release of this stress hormone, it can have a negative impact on your health.

What are the symptoms of high cortisol levels?

Common signs and symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • Weight gain – especially in your face and abdomen
  • Lack of energy/difficulty sleeping – as cortisol is a hormone, it can affect your sleep hormones
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar which can result in Type 2 diabetes
  • Brain fog – you may have difficulty concentrating, focusing and have a slower thought process
  • Weak bones and muscle weakness
  • Susceptibility to infection – your immune system can be impaired by cortisol, making it difficult to fight off infections

If you’re experiencing abnormally high levels of cortisol (hypercortisolism) and it lasts for a long time, you may have a rare, serious condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Taking large amounts of anti-inflammatory (steroid) medications, pituitary gland tumours or adrenal gland tumours or excessive growth of adrenal tissue (hyperplasia) can all lead to the development of Cushing’s syndrome.

Cortisol and women

Stress inevitably affects everyone. However, women may be more likely to suffer from increased levels of cortisol and chronic stress. This is the result of societal pressures – for example, women juggling work, childcare and keeping healthy.

Fluctuating hormones also affect women as they age, whether you’re perimenopausal, menopausal, postmenopausal or you’re in your reproductive years, your hormones are more likely to become imbalanced. This combination can lead to an increase in the release of cortisol and result in a lower sex drive and irregularity with menstrual periods.

Symptoms of high cortisol levels in females

  • A tendency to bruise easily
  • Thinning of your skin
  • Increased acne
  • Weight gain focused around the face and abdomen
  • Slow healing
  • Impact on mood - easily irritated and difficulty concentrating as well as headaches and fatigue
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Weakness in muscle strength
  • Delayed ovulation

Five ways to naturally reduce cortisol

You can try to reduce your levels of cortisol naturally through the following lifestyle changes:

1. Better sleep

Making sure you get a good night’s sleep can reduce your cortisol levels so have a bedtime routine which includes limiting your intake of caffeine at least six hours before your bedtime, establishing good sleep hygiene (no phone for at least 30 minutes before sleep, a quiet, dark bedroom) and sticking to a sleep schedule where you wake up and go to sleep at similar times every day are just some ways you can try to sleep better.

2. Practice mindfulness and breathing exercises

Practicing mindfulness can help you identify stressful thoughts and manage them better. Meditating for even five minutes each morning could lower your cortisol levels. Meditation, as well as yoga and tai chi, are good opportunities to practice deep breathing. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and lower cortisol levels.

3. Nourish your body

Did you know that research has shown a strong relationship between a healthy gut microbiome — all the microbes living in your gut — and improved mental health? Therefore, for a better gut and mental health, opt for a nutrient-dense diet full of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and foods high in prebiotics and probiotics. Examples of foods which can lower cortisol levels include: dark chocolate, legumes, lentils, green tea, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

4. Low impact exercise

Exercising regularly can help you better manage stress and promote good health, which may help lower cortisol levels. If you aim for around 150–200 minutes of low- to moderate- intensity exercise (brisk walking, yoga, swimming, riding a bike, jogging) each week, your cortisol response may decrease.

5. Healthy, happy relationships

Having positive relationships with your friends, family or partner can lead to an increase in overall happiness. Your emotional health can affect your physical health and in turn, can impact your cortisol level. So, implementing more quality time with the people you love or even your pets and doing more of the things that make you laugh, relax and bring you joy, will improve your wellbeing.

How to test for high cortisol levels

If you suspect that you may have high levels of the stress hormone, your GP may measure your cortisol levels through a blood test, a urine sample, or a saliva test. The test that’s recommended to you will be dependent on your symptoms.

Your cortisol levels usually peak in the early morning before slowly dropping throughout the day, and your lowest levels will be experienced around midnight. This pattern can change if you work a night shift and sleep at different times of the day.

For most tests that measure cortisol levels in your blood, the normal ranges are:

  • 6am – 8am: 10 to 20 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dL)
  • Around 4pm: 3 to 10 mcg/dL

If your results conclude that you have high cortisol levels, you may be referred for treatment or lifestyle changes.

Fast access to our private GP service

If you’re struggling with symptoms of suspected high levels of cortisol, you can request a cortisol test in your 25-minute GP appointment at our hospital by booking an appointment with our Private GPs. 

Published on 09 February 2023