Your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Understanding Cortisol

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Healthy cortisol levels are key to living a healthy life. The hormone that responds to physical and mental stress impacts your body in a big way. Enjoy this FAQ that will help get you up to speed, and help you #OwnYourHealth.

What is cortisol?

It’s a hormone! Your body produces it.

How is cortisol created?

Cortisol is commonly referred to as the “stress hormone” because your adrenal glands, perched right atop your kidneys, make cortisol in an attempt to help your body handle stressful situations. This is a response to signals from the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in the brain.

How much cortisol does my body need?

Your body has an ideal range for cortisol. Your optimal range is between 2.3 mcg/dL and 19.5 mcg/dL.

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.”

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


What are some causes and effects of high cortisol levels?

When stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, your 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):

  • Running late to / from meetings
  • Daily morning/evening social media annoyance bubbling up
  • Regularly arguing with a friend or family member
  • Chasing the train you commute on
  • The train you commute on chasing you

Because 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:  

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”

How can I better manage my cortisol levels?

If your cortisol is out of range (≥19.5 mcg/dL or < 2.3 mcg/dL), there are several simple ways to manage your cortisol to healthy levels.

Action 1: Get adequate sleep. Take stock of your days during the week to see if any of these 3 common daily habits are disrupting your sleep quality.

Action 2: Avoid caffeinated products. As we just mentioned, getting adequate sleep is important, so easing up on the stimulants can help prevent ruining your sleep rhythm. Related reading: Have you tried these 7 tricks to help you drink more water every day?

Action 3: Actively work on identifying and managing your stress. As detailed by the Mayo Clinic, “Stressful events are facts of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.”

Stress management strategies could include:

  • Fostering healthy relationships with friends and family
  • Volunteering in your community
  • Seeking professional counseling when needed
  • Increasing relaxation, such as meditation in the am when cortisol levels are highest. 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.
  • Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music

If your health is at risk from too high cortisol, talk with your doctor about how you can best manage your levels.

A consultation with a WellnessFX practitioner can also provide you with a customized, actionable plan based on your health profile.

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.

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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.