4 Basic Facts Everyone Should Know About Cortisol

credit: iStock Photo

Meet the hormone that responds to physical and mental stress, is highest in the morning and typically decreases throughout the day, and increases during times of starvation: Cortisol.

Because healthy cortisol levels are key to living a healthy life, here are four facts you should know about cortisol and how it impacts your body.

4 Basic Facts Everyone Should Know About Cortisol

Fact 1:  Your body produces cortisol

Cortisol is commonly 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, which is a response to signals from the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in the brain. You can read more about the cool process here.

Fact 2: Your body has an ideal range for cortisol

Your optimal range is between 2.3 mcg/dL and 19.5 mcg/dL.

If your cortisol is out of range (≥19.5 mcg/dL or < 2.3 mcg/dL), you might experience greater benefit from reducing stress.

Here’s a snapshot of cortisol levels tracked over time, as shown in any WellnessFX member’s personal, secure dashboard:


Cortisol tests are usually taken in the form of a blood test. As detailed by MedlinePlus, cortisol levels change throughout the day, so the timing of a cortisol test is important. “A cortisol blood test is usually done twice a day–once in the morning when cortisol levels are at their highest, and again around 4 p.m., when levels are much lower.”

Fact 3: Your body requires a balance of cortisol

Overall you are aiming for the general range mentioned above.

While a little spike of cortisol is good – and natural – 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. Chronic stress, as detailed by the Mayo Clinic, can wreak havoc on your mind and body. 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. Why is this an issue? Keep reading.

Fact 4: An imbalance of cortisol can interrupt other normal processes in your body.

When stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, giving you a subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones. Constantly present stressors could include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Chronic stress (as mentioned above)
  • Daily morning/evening commute anger
  • Regularly arguing with a friend or family member
  • A lion chasing you once a week 

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

  • Systemic damage to the circulatory system. 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.
  • Low immune response. Cortisol reduces the immune response, leaving your body vulnerable to invading pathogens that can make you sick and the body more susceptible to infection.
  • Weakened bones/osteoporosis. Cortisol inhibits bone growth, leading to a greater chance of issues down the road.
  • Weight Gain and Belly Fat: Cortisol plays a central role in glucose metabolism and in the body’s response to stress. As detailed by Dr. Mark Hyman, “Stress creates hormonal responses that cause weight gain and insulin resistance. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that helps you to run faster, see further, hear better and pump fuel into your bloodstream for quick energy. It is the hormone that helps us survive in the face of true danger.  It also shuts down digestion and slows your metabolism. All of this is perfectly normal in the short term, yet if left unchecked, prolonged stress and high levels of cortisol cause high blood sugar, increased belly fat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and muscle loss.”

3 Suggestions to Help Lower High Cortisol

  1. Get adequate sleep and avoid caffeinated products. Learn how to make the most of your sleep time with these tips from WellnessFX and WellnessFX Practitioner, Ben Greenfield.
  2. Decrease stress and increase relaxation, such as meditation in the am when cortisol levels are highest. Don’t underestimate the power of a moment alone. Taking 10 minutes to yourself can help hit the “reset” on all the troubles of the day. Check out 6 Ways Busy People Who Have No Time Can Unwind & Relax.
  3. Avoid over-training, not eating to meet your body’s basic caloric needs, and other states of body depletion.

How WellnessFX Can Help

WellnessFX Performance, Premium and Women’s Health can test cortisol, the key biomarker mentioned in this post. Or you can create a custom package and add it to a testing panel of your choice. We recommend checking out the full testing menu to see what package fits your needs best.

Everything from energy levels to fat metabolism, to focus and memory, to skin quality and ability to stay asleep at night are affected by hormones. Read more about about them in 4 Reasons That Could Explain Why You’re Tired All the Time.

We believe in the power in a drop of blood. Regularly testing your biomarkers gives you the data you need to make informed decisions, which can put you on track to anything from higher energy, better sleep, and even better weight management. Rather than play defense and wait to find an issue you need to then react to, why not play offense and work toward being the healthiest you can be?

Show me the tests

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.