The body requires a balance of cortisol to function optimally. Cortisol levels that are either too high or too low can throw off the body’s equilibrium. High cortisol levels are common because they can develop as a result of chronic stress and other environmental factors. If you’re looking for strategies for achieving normal cortisol levels, then you’ve come to the right place.
Read on to find out more about why it’s important to keep cortisol within a healthy range and how to lower cortisol levels.
The Role of Cortisol in the Body
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body that is secreted by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is responsible for helping the body prepare and sustain itself during a stressful situation. When cortisol is released, blood sugar levels increase to provide the body with more energy. Cortisol also increases energy levels and manages blood pressure and inflammation.
Balanced levels of cortisol are beneficial and helpful for regulating mood, energy, and sleep. However, when cortisol is chronically too high, it can wreak havoc on your health.
How Does the Body Control Cortisol Levels?
The release of cortisol is part of a careful feedback loop as part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus is an area of the brain that influences hormonal health, the pituitary gland is a tiny hormone-secreting organ in the brain, and the adrenal glands are located on the kidneys and also release hormones. The specific part of the adrenal glands responsible for releasing cortisol is called the adrenal cortex.
The hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and the adrenal glands release cortisol. ACTH is the hormone responsible for telling the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Levels of ACTH are monitored by the amount of CRH. When cortisol levels are high, the hypothalamus decreases the release of CRH, in turn lowering ACTH and cortisol in the blood. All of these systems are in careful communication to ensure proper levels of cortisol in the body.
The release of cortisol follows a diurnal trajectory, meaning our cortisol levels tend to be higher in the mornings. Higher cortisol levels in the morning increase heart rate and alertness, helping us wake up and have the energy to start the day. Over the course of the day and throughout the evening, cortisol levels slowly drop.
Why Is High Cortisol Bad?
Having high cortisol is common among the American population. Stressful lifestyles, unhealthy diets, and lack of sleep drives up cortisol levels and puts the body in a state of chronic stress.
High cortisol levels are also connected to metabolic and hormonal conditions like fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, obesity, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Chronically high cortisol levels drive up blood sugar levels, increase systemic inflammation, worsen blood pressure, cause weight gain, and even contribute to anxiety and depression.
Signs of High Cortisol
If you have chronically high cortisol, you may experience signs and symptoms such as:
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain in the abdominal area
- Digestive Issues
Many of these symptoms of high cortisol also overlap with symptoms that we might associate with emotional stress or stress at work. Occasional fatigue, a sleepless night, or an upset stomach that is connected to a stressful event is normal. However, if you are noticing ongoing fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, and digestive issues, this could be a sign that chronic stress levels are causing high cortisol levels.
How to Support Normal Cortisol Levels
Are you stressed and wondering if you may have elevated cortisol levels? Although no food is a complete cortisol blocker, rest assured there are diet and lifestyle adjustments that you can make to help lower your cortisol levels and protect your overall health. Keep in mind that in this section we discuss high cortisol levels as a result of chronic stress and dietary factors. For managing other causes of abnormal cortisol levels, it’s best to talk to your doctor.
1. Limit Your Sugar Intake
When lowering your stress hormone levels, it’s a good idea to limit your sugar intake. Consuming sugar in the form of added sugars and refined grains can cause fluctuations in your blood glucose levels. High blood sugar levels followed by sugar crashes can increase inflammation and wreak havoc on your hormones, impacting the function of insulin and cortisol.
To help keep blood sugar levels stable and cortisol at a healthy level, strive to limit your intake of added sugars and refined grains. This means staying away from foods like candy, soda, pastries, white bread, and white pasta. Sugar may even be hiding in foods like salad dressing and sauces, so make sure to check the nutrition labels before purchasing packaged foods.
2. Reduce Stress Levels
Stress is a major contributor to high cortisol levels. Moderate levels of positive stress in our daily lives is important, and even healthy to some degree. However, crushing emotional stress and pressure is unhealthy and takes a physiological toll.
Luckily, there are strategies we can incorporate into our daily routine to help manage stress and decrease cortisol levels. Here are a few ideas:
- Meditation: Meditation is a practice that helps quiet the mind and promotes relaxation. Try to work meditation into your daily routine. Even a few minutes of meditation each day can help reduce blood pressure and keep cortisol at a healthy level.
- Yoga: Yoga focuses on breathing and body movements to reduce anxiety and stress. Incorporating regular yoga sessions into your routine can help manage cortisol levels.
- Exercise: Exercise may result in a temporary increase in cortisol following exertion. However, regular exercise decreases baseline cortisol levels. As a result, regular exercise can help you sleep better and feel more relaxed.
- Work-life balance: Balancing work and life outside of work is a crucial step in decreasing stress levels and lowering your cortisol.
- Deep breathing: If you feel stressed and panicked, deep breathing can immediately help lower your heart rate and keep an anxiety attack at bay. Deep breathing techniques are also convenient because they can be done at home, while traveling, or while at work.
Sleeping is the body’s time to repair from the day’s work. While we are asleep, the body clears waste from cells and processes waste products, so that all biochemical systems are streamlined and prepared for the next day. Though the amount of sleep needed varies by person, adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
We all know how we feel when we don’t sleep enough; we tend to be affected by crankiness and fatigue the following day. These symptoms of sleep deprivation are a window into what’s happening in the body on a biochemical level.
Research demonstrates that sleep deprivation disrupts the function of the pituitary glands, adrenal glands, and hypothalamus. A study published in Sleep found that young men experiencing sleep deprivation had elevated cortisol levels the following evening. (1) Researchers concluded that sleep deprivation may increase the effect of stress on the body and may be linked to negative metabolic and neurological outcomes. (1)
It’s also widely accepted that sleep deprivation increases oxidative stress and inflammation throughout the body.
So, getting enough sleep is not only good for reducing cortisol levels but also for supporting your overall health and wellbeing.
How can you make sure that you’re getting enough sleep? Here are a few tips for increasing your quality of sleep and getting to sleep quicker.
- Reduce screen time before bed. The light from our phones and TVs can make it difficult to fall asleep quickly. For the last hour or two before bed, try to minimize screen time. Instead of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram, read a relaxing book or listen to soothing music.
- Establish a routine. Having a bedtime routine is crucial for preparing your body and mind for sleep. For example, maybe you like to drink a cup of tea and take a shower. Establishing this routine helps your body quiet down and prepare for sleep.
- Exercise. Many people find that exercising during the day helps them fall asleep more easily at night.
- Limit your caffeine intake. Caffeine is helpful when waking up in the morning, but drinking too much can interfere with your ability to fall asleep in the evening. Stick to one cup of coffee in the morning, to help you fall asleep easier at night.
4. Eating Enough Protein
Are you looking for foods that reduce cortisol? Protein may help. Dietary protein is a vital macronutrient that offers amino acids, which are the smallest individual units that make up dietary protein. There are two main categories of amino acids: nonessential and essential. The body is able to synthesize nonessential amino acids. On the other hand, essential amino acids must be obtained from food.
Essential amino acids are crucial for the body to work properly, from metabolic health to endocrine health. They may even play a role in suppressing cortisol response during exercise. In a randomized controlled trial published in Nutrition, researchers evaluated the impact of carbohydrate intake and essential amino acid intake on cortisol response. (2)
In the study, subjects fasted for 4 hours and then engaged in resistance training exercises. During the exercise session, they consumed either a carbohydrate drink, an essential amino acid drink, a mixed carbohydrate and essential amino acid supplement, or a placebo. (2) Results revealed that an intake of carbohydrates and an essential amino acid supplement reduced the cortisol response during exercise. (2)
While it’s unclear whether the effect of essential amino acids on cortisol extends to a non-exercise context, it’s still important to ensure that you get optimal ratios of essential amino acids on a daily basis. Essential amino acids are critical for nearly all physiological processes, including the production of muscle tissue, hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes.
How can you ensure that you’re getting the amino acids you need? Animal proteins like meat, dairy, eggs, and fish offer optimal ratios of essential amino acids. Vegetable proteins like beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and tofu must be combined throughout the day to offer balanced ratios of essential amino acids. Taking a high-quality essential amino acid supplement may also be beneficial.
5. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Having a high BMI or low BMI seems to be connected to high cortisol levels. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism evaluated cortisol levels in 60 women who were anorexic, normal weight, or overweight or obese. (3) Results determined that extremely low and high BMIs were associated with high cortisol levels. (3) Researchers also found that high cortisol levels may also contribute to muscle wasting and low bone mineral density. (3)
Maintaining a healthy body weight is key to supporting healthy cortisol levels. Here are a few tips for ensuring that you’re keeping your body weight within a healthy range.
- Don’t undereat. Undereating is one of the worst things you can do for your metabolism. Undereating destabilizes blood sugar levels and can cause you to binge eat later. Plus, eating inadequate amounts of food leads to muscle wasting and a sluggish metabolism. Avoid following restrictive crash diets that backfire later.
- Avoid overeating. Overeating is also detrimental to your body weight. Eating more food than your body needs leads to the storage of energy in the form of fat, which increases your body weight.
- Eat regularly. Eating snacks or small meals at regular intervals throughout the day is crucial for keeping your blood sugar levels stable and preventing binge eating.
- Cut out packaged and processed foods. Packaged and processed foods are often packed with unhealthy ingredients that wreak havoc on metabolic health, like sugar, salt, saturated fat,
- Exercise consistently. Staying active is important for supporting a healthy weight. Aerobic exercise helps keep the cardiovascular system functioning optimally, while also lowering blood pressure. Strength training builds muscle tissue and boosts your resting metabolic rate. Both forms of exercise burn calories and help you maintain a healthy body weight.
Keep in mind that if you’re struggling with an eating disorder like anorexia or binge eating disorder, it’s critical to get treatment and support from your doctor, psychologist, and other eating disorder specialists.
6. Eat Plenty of Whole, Plant-Based Foods
Whole, plant-based foods are those that have grown in the ground and remained relatively unchanged and unprocessed by the time they get to the grocery store. This includes foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. These foods are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that lower inflammation and help the body respond effectively to stress.
7. Get Plenty of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are known for their anti-inflammatory effects on the body. A study published in Diabetes & Metabolism demonstrates the therapeutic effect that omega-3 fatty acid intake has on cortisol levels. (4)
Researchers evaluated the physiological impacts of mental stress on 7 volunteers, prior to fish oil supplementation in a controlled setting and after 3 weeks of fish oil supplementation. (4) The control setting revealed that mental stress elicited elevated heart rate, elevated plasma cortisol levels, and other biological markers of stress. Following the 3 weeks of supplementation, cortisol response to stress was significantly lower. (4)
How can you ensure that you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids to lower your cortisol levels? Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are abundant in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. You can also obtain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pecans.
Getting optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of EPA and DHA can be challenging. Eating fish on a daily basis is not realistic. Eating foods like chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and pecans can help boost your omega-3 fatty acid intake. Supplements to reduce cortisol may include fish oil, taken on a daily basis or as directed.
How Do You Know If You Have Normal Cortisol Levels?
The only way to know if you have normal cortisol levels is by visiting your doctor. Your physician will be able to order blood tests to ensure that your serum cortisol levels are within a normal range. You will need to have a blood sample taken and analyzed for the level of cortisol present. Because cortisol levels show diurnal variation, cortisol serum levels are sometimes tested both in the morning and in the afternoon.
According to Mayo Clinic Laboratories, the normal range of a total cortisol laboratory test taken in the morning usually falls between 5 and 25 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), which is equivalent to 140 and 690 nmol/L. (5) Total cortisol tests taken in the afternoon or evening should fall between 2 and 14 mcg/dL. (5) Free cortisol may also be measured, with normal morning test values falling between 0.121-1.065 mcg/dL. (5)
Getting evaluated by your doctor is important for determining whether you have high cortisol levels and getting treatment.
Causes of Imbalanced Cortisol Levels
Many individuals suffer from elevated cortisol levels as a result of chronic stress and an unhealthy diet. However, there are other underlying conditions that may cause high cortisol levels or low cortisol levels.
When cortisol levels are too high, it can lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. This condition may develop from corticosteroid medication, or from conditions like pituitary tumors or adrenal gland disease that cause the body to overproduce cortisol. Some cases of Cushing’s syndrome may also be inherited.
If you have Cushing’s syndrome, you may experience symptoms like:
- Flushed appearance in the face
- Weight gain in the face and abdominal area
- High blood sugar
- Fat accumulation around the neck and shoulders
- Thin arms and legs
- Mood swings
- Lower bone strength
- Muscle wasting
If you think you may have Cushing’s syndrome, it’s important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your physician will be able to diagnose Cushing’s syndrome and recommend treatment plans.
High cortisol levels can also result from exogenous sources. Glucocorticoid medications may be administered to help manage conditions like autoimmune diseases, cancer, skin irritation, or organ transplants. Taking large doses of glucocorticoid medication may lead to abnormally high cortisol levels.
Hydrocortisone is a good example of glucocorticoid medication. Hydrocortisone cream is available over-the-counter as an ointment for irritated skin or insect bites. However, when properly used, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream won’t cause cortisol levels to increase. Hydrocortisone is also used as a medication administered by your physician as an injection, which can help manage inflammation and pain in joints. The injection is more likely to cause high cortisol levels when taken over a long period of time.
Prednisone, prednisolone, and dexamethasone are other examples of medications that may over time contribute to high cortisol levels. Taking birth control pills that contain estrogen may also cause an increase in cortisol.
Addison’s disease is a condition that causes adrenal insufficiency. Individuals with Addison’s disease do not produce sufficient levels of cortisol and may experience symptoms like nausea, hypoglycemia, low blood pressure, and weight loss.
Adrenal hyperplasia is a genetic condition that causes the adrenal glands to produce excess levels of male androgens like testosterone, and insufficient levels of cortisol.
Hypopituitarism is a condition in which the pituitary gland in the brain produces insufficient levels of hormones. Individuals with hypopituitarism are usually treated with hormone replacement medications
How to Achieve Normal Cortisol Levels: Conclusion
Elevated cortisol levels are correlated with high stress levels. Chronically high cortisol levels worsen inflammation and are also connected to high blood sugar, fatty liver disease, and PCOS. A diet high in protein, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids can help stabilize cortisol levels. It’s also important to keep in mind that abnormally high or abnormally low cortisol levels may be a result of other factors and conditions, such as medication, adrenal hyperplasia, or Cushing’s syndrome. Always check in with your doctor and make sure that you identify the cause of high cortisol levels.