What is Cortisol? Everything You Need to Know

What is Cortisol? Everything You Need to Know

Table of Contents

There are many hormones that interact everyday inside of your body in order to maintain a healthy balance. One of the most important hormones in your body is cortisol, which is commonly known as the stress hormone. Although cortisol is necessary for your wellbeing, the effects of excessive cortisol levels can be harmful.

But how do you know if you’re experiencing problems with your cortisol levels? And do you know which cortisol results are considered to be normal? Keep reading to find out.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the body’s suprarenal or adrenal glands, which are two small glands located directly above each kidney. According to the National Cancer Institute, cortisol secreted by the body helps process glucose, fatty acids, and protein. On the other hand, synthetic cortisol is called hydrocortisone, and it can be used to treat a wide range of conditions.

How does cortisol affect the body?

Practically all cells throughout the human body have receptors for the cortisol hormone, which means that it can affect many different processes and organs. According to HealthDirect, the production of cortisol is triggered by a small gland called the pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain. 

Cortisol is Made in the Pituitary Gland

The pituitary gland reacts whenever you face a stressful event, stimulating the adrenal glands so they release more cortisol. The main function of cortisol in the body is to start the “fight or flight” response, which is why it’s known as the main stress hormone. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, cortisol is involved in many different processes, including:

  • Regulating your response to stress
  • Balancing the way your body metabolizes proteins, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and other nutrients
  • Helping in the control of your blood sugar and blood pressure levels
  • Regulating your circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle
  • Modulating inflammation levels

Normal cortisol levels

Your optimal cortisol levels can vary depending on different factors, such as your age, gender, and even the time of the day. But according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, normal cortisol test results are typically within the following range:

  • 6-8 a.m.: 10-20 mcg/dL
  • Around 4 p.m.: 3-10 mcg/dL

Cortisol levels throughout the day

Your cortisol levels don’t remain the same throughout the entire day. On the contrary, cortisol levels reach their highest concentration after you wake up. According to a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, cortisol levels typically increase by 38 to 75% about half an hour after you wake up.

It’s thought that one of the benefits of cortisol is that it helps you wake up by providing a quick energy boost in the morning. Your cortisol levels should be at their lowest natural point when it’s time to go to bed at night. However, poor sleep hygiene, excessive stress, and other factors can disrupt this process and lead to sleep problems.

This is one of the reasons why having a good sleep hygiene routine is so important to ensure that you’re getting enough rest at night.

Cortisol Can Give You an Energy Boost

Symptoms of abnormal cortisol levels

Abnormal cortisol levels can lead to different health problems. Let’s go over some of the most common symptoms of high and low cortisol levels.

Symptoms of elevated cortisol

Cushing syndrome is one of the most common causes of elevated cortisol levels. This condition happens when your body is exposed to too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time, which is usually the result of excessive cortisol production or chronic use of certain medications. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of Cushing syndrome can include:

  • Weight gain
  • Fatty deposits, especially around the upper back, abdomen, face, and between the shoulders
  • Pink or violet stretch marks
  • Acne
  • Slow healing of wounds
  • Frequent infections

Symptoms of low cortisol

Low cortisol, on the other hand, is more likely to be caused by Addison’s disease or adrenal insufficiency. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Addison’s disease causes symptoms such as:

  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Darkening of the skin
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Irregular menstrual periods

How do you know if your cortisol levels are high or low?

The easiest and most accurate way to determine whether your cortisol levels are too high or too low is by getting a cortisol test. There are different ways of testing for cortisol levels, and both blood and saliva samples can be used.

Your doctor could order a cortisol test if you’re showing signs of low or high cortisol levels without a known cause. This test could also be ordered to help rule out different conditions. It’s important to discuss your test results with your healthcare provider, and to avoid starting any new treatments without medical supervision.

You can learn more about many other health topics by heading over to STDWatch.com now.


cortisol - cancer.gov

The role of cortisol in the body - healthdirect.gov.au

Cortisol - my.clevelandclinic.org

Cortisol (Blood) - urmc.rochester.edu

The cortisol awakening response – Applications and implications for sleep medicine - sciencedirect.com

Cushing syndrome - mayoclinic.org

Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) - hopkinsmedicine.org

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