Medically Reviewed by Shervin H. Shaffiy, MD, MSc, Advisory Board Member of True Marker, CEO of S&S Wellness & Aesthetics, President & Founder of Eco-Medical Solutions
Like Goldilocks and her porridge, you want your cortisol levels to be just right—too high or too low, and this stress hormone will wreak havoc on your health. Cortisol has wide-ranging functions in the human body, so it’s important to keep your levels balanced and know the signs of potential problems. Cortisol testing helps you monitor your hormone levels to maintain a vibrant sense of well-being.
How Cortisol Works
Cortisol is an integral part of your body’s “fight-or-flight” response to stress. When you encounter a threat or dangerous situation the hypothalamus region of the brain and your pituitary gland alert the adrenal glands that you’re in jeopardy. These three areas make up the HPA axis.
The adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland continue to send signals to the adrenal glands controlling the production of cortisol.
Cortisol then prepares your body to “fight” by:
- Raising your blood pressure and heart rate.
- Producing energy (slowing down insulin production so your body can access glucose and converting the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbs into fuel).
- Suppressing bodily functions that don’t have a role in stress response, such as the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems.
- Reducing body inflammation.
- Sharpening memory.
- Raising your pain threshold.
Cortisol production slows down when the threat has subsided, allowing your body to return to normal (for example, your heart stops racing and you feel the energy and adrenaline dissipate). You need cortisol at appropriate times, and a finely tuned HPA axis regulates production to make everything run smoothly. But problems occur when that system becomes unbalanced.
The Effects of Stress Hormones on the Body
Cortisol is good in small amounts, but if you live with constant, chronic stress, the HPA axis floods your body with cortisol. This can lead to a number of health problems, including:
- Digestive problems, such as constipation or diarrhea
- Feelings of depression or anxiety
- Mood swings, such as increased irritability
- Weight gain, especially in the belly (the brain signals you to eat, thinking your body needs fuel for its stress response)
- High blood pressure
- Low sex drive
- Disrupted sleep/wake cycles
- Rising blood sugar levels, which raises the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
- Increased likelihood of disease due to a suppressed immune system
You may also have elevated cortisol levels if you suffer from Cushing’s syndrome. This condition is usually triggered by some steroid medications or a pituitary tumor, and it can bring about many of the same symptoms as with chronic stress.
Low cortisol levels, on the other hand, can cause other concerns. This condition is called adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease, and it’s often caused by autoimmune damage to the adrenal glands. It may lead to:
- Low blood pressure
- A decrease in blood sugar levels
- Weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Weak muscles
- Hyperpigmentation of the skin
- Nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal issues
Addison’s disease is rare and you should see a healthcare provider if you experience symptoms. It’s more common to suffer from elevated cortisol levels due to stress. And, unfortunately, many people have been dealing with unprecedented levels of stress in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Psychological Association conducted the Stress in America™ 2020 survey in the early months of the pandemic. The average COVID-related stress level for adults was 5.9 on a 1-to-10 scale and the average general stress score was 5.4; the previous year, the average was only 4.9. Stress was even higher in 2020 for parents, whose average stress rating was 6.7. Significant stressors included school closures, access to basic necessities, the U.S. economy, and the government’s response to the pandemic.
Not much has changed in a year. The association’s Stress in America™: January 2021 Stress Snapshot, noted that adult participants’ average stress level was 5.6. In addition, 84% of people reported experiencing sadness, anger, anxiety, or one other emotion related to overwhelming stress. And a sobering ⅔ of respondents were worried about all the issues America is dealing with.
So if you’re stressed, you’re not alone. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of high cortisol due to stress, you’ll want to check your stress hormone levels.
How to Check Your Cortisol Levels
It’s of utmost importance that your cortisol levels are balanced and not drastically elevated or decreased. An at-home cortisol test will provide vital information regarding your levels to make sure they are just right. Try an at-home test to maintain a healthy cortisol balance that promotes your overall health and wellness. Remember, engaging in strenuous exercise or physical activity within the 24 hours before your test can lead to an elevation in your cortisol levels and inaccurate results.
Cortisol tests can be done in a clinical setting or at home. Hormone levels can be checked with blood, saliva, or urine samples. Blood tests are very effective, and they’re typically done in the morning when natural cortisol production is higher, and in the late afternoon, when cortisol is at its lowest levels.
At-home tests harness innovative technology to give you accurate results, as well as the convenience of taking the tests in the comfort of your home. With these tests, it’s important to follow the instructions exactly for the best results.
Review the results of any test with your healthcare provider. You may need professional guidance on treating an underlying medical condition, or your physician may recommend lifestyle changes to help manage stress:
- Establish regular sleep habits, and get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
- Exercise often. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation.
- Carve out time for hobbies or pastimes that you enjoy.
Make sure your cortisol levels aren’t too low or too high, but just right. Try an at-home cortisol test to maintain a healthy balance that promotes overall wellness.
True Marker is a Los Angeles-based, state-of-the-art reference laboratory designed to deliver a better at-home health experience. True Marker is a CAP Accreditedorganization providing easy, affordable, and convenient at-home testing that can quickly diagnose a range of health conditions. To learn more, please visit https://truemarker.com/.