Stress by the Numbers—What High Cortisol Levels Mean to Your Health


When Michelle wakes up in the morning, she notices a vague sense of worry percolating beneath the surface. She starts to feel uncomfortable. Her mind swarms with thoughts—and none of them are good. She steadies her breath, and reminds herself that she can get through this day, just like she makes it through every day: with coffee throughout to stay focused, then generous amounts of wine to wind down.

While Michelle’s leaning in like a boss, her health is spinning out of control, and she has no idea of what’s going on behind the scenes.

You might not be at Michelle-like levels of overwork, but if your stress-to-relaxation ratio isn’t in balance, you might consider getting your cortisol levels checked.

2 Important Facts About Cortisol

Cortisol is good—in small doses

You’ve probably heard cortisol referred to as the “stress hormone.” Your adrenal glands, perched right atop your kidneys, make cortisol in an attempt to help your body handle stressful situations.

And while a little spike of cortisol is good in response to short-term stressors, it starts to become a problem when the body starts making too much, too often.

High cortisol is an overreaction to chronic stress

If you’re used to spending your days worrying, overworking, or just generally freaking out, your adrenals try to help out by hitting you with frequent doses of fight-or-flight energy.

Many of your body’s normal processes can get interrupted by these bursts—they’re placed on the back-burner while you tend to your “dangerous” situation. This can lead to a number of unhealthy issues.

4 Unhealthy Responses to Imbalanced Cortisol

  1. Low immune response. Cortisol reduces the immune response, leaving your body vulnerable to invading pathogens that can make you sick.
  2. Systemic damage to the circulatory system. High cortisol can really gum up your pipes. Cortisol tells your blood vessels to narrow, which increases your blood pressure and puts constant stress on your heart, veins, and arteries. It also can lead to high blood sugar, which can interfere with proper circulation and increase the buildup of cholesterol.
  3. Weakened bones/osteoporosis. Cortisol inhibits bone growth, leading to a greater chance of issues down the road.
  4. Two words: belly fat. Your body’s in fight-or-flight mode every day—of course it’s going stockpile resources!

Chronically stressed? Start doing something about it.

Cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning, usually peaking around 8:00 am. While this blood test only requires a morning fast, eating your last morsel before 8:00 pm the previous night means you’ll be ready for comprehensive biomarker testing in the morning.

If your cortisol number is out of range when you get your results (>23 mcg/dL), you’ve got some stress reduction to do. And at the very least, you can work to counteract some of its more damaging effects.

  • Cut down on the uppers and ease up on the downers. Caffeine and alcohol are modern staples;  Unfortunately, they both contribute to high cortisol. Look to long-term use of adaptogens to help keep your highs and lows in check.
  • Adaptogens? Adaptogens are a class of substances that can reduce the physical effects of stress. From herbs like panax ginseng, rhodiola rosea, holy basil, and astragalus, to supplements like magnesium, theanine, and phosphatidylserine, there are a number of pills, teas, and tinctures you can take to help reduce elevated cortisol levels.
  • Get regular sleep and more of it. While it might seem impossible to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, having a regular bedtime and wake-up time can help keep your cortisol in check.
  • Be still. Remind your body what relaxation feels like. Even taking a few deliberate deep breaths can help reduce stress. Eventually, you can build up to sitting meditation for even more powerful reductions.

Think you don’t have enough time to relax? Try our blog post, 6 Ways Busy People Who Have No Time Can Unwind & Relax.

Cortisol In a Nutshell

Over time, chronic stress can deplete our adrenals, leading to low cortisol levels—a condition known as adrenal fatigue. We’ll talk more about adrenal fatigue later this week, but in the meantime you can check out fitness expert Ben Greenfield’s suggestion to a reader managing this condition.

In today’s fast-paced environment, keeping track of your cortisol levels can mean the difference between blowing up and burning out.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.