Is Your Cortisol High? Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels & How to Lower Cortisol Naturally

Spending time in nature is an effective way to lower cortisol naturally

Cortisol is one of the hormones that gets talked about the most in day-to-day life, especially in the wellness corners of the internet and social media platforms. If you’ve come across these conversations (or even if you haven’t), you likely know that high cortisol levels aren’t good, but there’s usually not more context given than that. How can you know if your cortisol levels are high, and what can you do about it? Read on to learn the symptoms of high cortisol levels, the various different causes of high cortisol, how to lower cortisol naturally, and more. 

You can also listen to this guide on The getWellBe Podcast.

What Is Cortisol? 

You’ve probably heard cortisol be referred to as the “stress hormone,” which is a fairly accurate descriptor. But let’s take a step back to fully understand what that means.

Cortisol is a hormone. You can think of hormones as the messengers of your body: they’re chemicals that coordinate all your bodily functions by communicating messages from one part of your body to another. Through chemical signals, they tell your body what to do, enabling you to adapt to your environment and respond to changing internal and external factors. 

Cortisol belongs to a class of hormones called steroid hormones, which are hormones created by certain glands — the adrenal glands and reproductive glands — that communicate with your central nervous system. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located on top of your kidneys, and its primary purpose is to regulate your body’s stress response.

When your body experiences any kind of stress — whether it’s acute or chronic — your adrenals release cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for putting your body into a fight-or-flight state, flooding your bloodstream with glucose and enhancing the brain’s ability to use it. It also stops or slows down any non-essential bodily functions, like digestion. The cortisol is there to protect you from whatever you’re up against, shifting you into a hyper-alert state where all your energy is focused on dealing with the stressor at hand. 

However, cortisol doesn’t just regulate stress. It also plays an essential role in other bodily functions, like:

When everything is functioning properly, your body constantly monitors its cortisol levels and ensures they remain in check. But several things can throw off this delicate balance, impairing your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis and sending your cortisol levels higher than they should be. And when this happens, a cascade of negative health effects tend to follow. 

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol isn’t bad. You want to have a certain amount of cortisol in your bloodstream — but it shouldn’t be too high, and it should fluctuate based on the time of day. Specifically, cortisol should peak in the early morning and decline throughout the day (which makes sense: the cortisol helps wake you up, and then it drops steadily so that you’re sleepy when bedtime rolls around). But if your cortisol levels are too high, or if they’re too high at the wrong time of day, you may start to experience some unpleasant symptoms of high cortisol levels.

Some of the most common symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • High blood pressure. Because cortisol puts your body in fight-or-flight mode, it raises your blood pressure. This is fine in moments of acute, short-term stress, but if you have chronically high cortisol levels, your blood pressure can also be chronically high. 
  • High blood sugar. High cortisol levels are associated with higher blood sugar levels. This makes sense given the stress response we described above: when you encounter stress, cortisol signals to your body that it should flood the bloodstream with sugar so that you have energy readily available to address the crisis at hand. When your cortisol levels are too high over the long-term, this effect doesn’t wear off — meaning your blood sugar levels remain elevated.
  • Impaired digestion. As we mentioned above, when your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, it temporarily turns off “non-essential” functions, like digestion. So that means that poor digestion is one of the hallmark symptoms of high cortisol levels. Research shows that chronically elevated cortisol leads to all sorts of digestive problems, from leaky gut to impaired absorption of micronutrients to abdominal pain.
  • Extra abdominal fat. Cortisol impacts fat distribution, causing excess weight to be stored around the organs in your midsection. Multiple studies in both humans and animals show that chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with more abdominal fat. Read more about the link between cortisol and belly fat in our guide to female hormonal imbalance.
  • Trouble sleeping. Cortisol is meant to peak in the morning and drop off in the evening, letting you peacefully drift to sleep. But if your cortisol levels are high at nighttime, it can lead to insomnia — which is logical, considering that cortisol tells your body there’s an immediate crisis to address. How can you sleep soundly if your body thinks there’s a tiger hunting you? 
  • Headaches. Research has linked high cortisol levels with migraines as well as regular headaches. 
  • Mental health issues. High cortisol levels are associated with some mental health problems, like anxiety and depression. Again, this makes sense: when you’re physiologically in panic mode all the time, it’s going to have a psychological impact on you as well (and who wouldn’t feel anxious when their body is primed to fight an enemy?). 
  • Irregular periods. Because cortisol is a hormone, and all hormones exist in a precise balance with one another, high levels of cortisol can throw off your levels of other hormones. This hormonal imbalance, in turn, can lead to other hormone-related issues, like irregular periods or anovulation (when you don’t ovulate). 
  • Skin problems. Research has tied elevated cortisol levels to skin issues like premature skin aging and acne. Though there’s still research to be done on why exactly this happens, it may have to do with the effect cortisol has on your skin’s oil glands.

Note that not everyone with elevated cortisol will experience all (or even any) of these symptoms of high cortisol levels — but if your cortisol levels are too high, it’s likely that you’ll notice at least a few of these signs. To get a more definitive assessment of your cortisol levels, you can ask your doctor to measure your cortisol levels through a blood, urine, or saliva test. Just remember that “normal” cortisol ranges will vary from person to person, so even if your numbers are within what’s considered the normal range, you may still have a problem. Consider your numbers holistically, looking at them in conjunction with any symptoms of high cortisol levels that you might be experiencing, to determine if you need more testing or need to take steps to lower your cortisol.

What Are the Causes of High Cortisol?

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of high cortisol levels, your first question will probably be, why? As you may imagine, given the fact that cortisol is indeed the “stress hormone,” stress is a major contributor to high cortisol levels — but there are other causes of high cortisol. 

The various different causes of high cortisol include:

  • Stress. This is the biggie, so we’ll address it first and foremost. Cortisol was meant for handling acute, short-term stress back in our ancestors’ days: it sent your body into high alert so that it could deal with predators (running from a tiger who is about to eat you!) or other similar threats back in the day. But in today’s modern world, where those sorts of threats are much more rare but we all live more stressful lives, people are living with chronically high cortisol levels. Your body can’t tell the difference between the stress of a life-threatening situation versus the stress of a big deadline, and so you pay the price in the form of high cortisol and all the symptoms that go along with it.
  • Too much caffeine. Caffeine stimulates cortisol production, and so if your coffee habit has crept out of control, it could be contributing to higher than normal cortisol levels.
  • An unhealthy diet. Research has found that eating a diet high in added sugar, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates leads to significantly higher cortisol levels when compared to a more whole foods-based diet.
  • Certain medications. A few different medications may contribute to high cortisol levels, including oral contraceptives and (unsurprisingly) steroids, such as prednisone, cortisone, or hydrocortisone.
  • Elevated estrogen is associated with elevated cortisol, so if your estrogen levels are high, it can cause your cortisol to increase. Elevated estrogen can be caused by a number of factors, including pregnancy or (again) hormonal contraception. It can also be caused by too many fake or xenoestrogens from toxic home cleaning and personal care products, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, including glyphosate as found in conventional food, and even non-organic tampons, unfiltered tap water, plastics, and canned food.  
  • An underlying condition. If your cortisol levels are high, it could also signal an underlying condition, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s disease, diabetes, PCOS, or pituitary gland malfunction. 
  • An adrenal gland tumor. Both benign and cancerous tumors on the adrenal gland can secrete high levels of cortisol. This is relatively rare, but if you’ve ruled out the other causes of high cortisol levels, it may be worth getting a scan.

If you’re struggling with high cortisol, the most likely culprit is chronic stress. But before you take action to lower your cortisol levels, it’s important to consider all the causes of high cortisol in order to make sure you’re not missing something.

How to Lower Cortisol Naturally

The symptoms of high cortisol levels are quite unpleasant, and can have a serious negative impact on your long-term health. Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do, starting today, to lower cortisol naturally. 

When it comes to how to lower cortisol naturally, here are the most effective strategies:

  • Reduce your stress (this is different from changing how your body reacts to stress which we’ll talk about next). Look at your calendar and to-do list and the past few weeks of your life…did you run from one thing to another constantly putting out fires and feeling stressed? Have you taken on too many responsibilities or stayed too long in a job or commitment you hate or find stressful? Perhaps it’s time to cut those things that you find bring you a lot of stress or reorganize your calendar, to-do list, and life so that you have more time to move slowly or at least not frenetically, and have time to be calm, quiet and reflective each day. Then once you’ve cut, simplified, or changed everything you can from your life, consider that it could be your reaction to stress that’s causing your cortisol levels to rise, not the sources of stress in your life.  
  • How your nervous system and your brain reacts to stress depends a lot on past experiences in your life like childhood trauma or how you were taught or witnessed parental figures react to stress. This doesn’t mean feeling stressed by every little thing that comes up is a life sentence — there are things you can do to retrain your brain and calm your nervous system. One of those that has some promising research is tapping. In one particularly striking study, subjects who used the tapping technique saw their cortisol levels fall by 43%, compared to 2% in the control group. Learn more about how tapping works and how to do it yourself in our interview with Jessica Ortner. Other therapies and activities that can help your nervous system manage inevitable life stress when it comes up are deep breathing, meditation, resetting your vagus nerve, mindfulness practices and others.
  • Take supplements. Research has tied certain supplements to decreased cortisol levels. Some of the most promising supplements include fish oil, relora, and ashwagandha. You can find tons of curated, WellBe-vetted and approved supplements in our Non-Toxic Product Database
  • Get regular exercise. It’s commonly known that physical exercise is a good way to reduce stress. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that it causes your body to release endorphins, the happiness hormone, but it’s also been shown to help reduce cortisol levels
  • Spend time in nature. As Dr. David Perlmutter explained in our interview with him, spending time in nature reduces inflammation and cortisol. And you don’t have to move to the woods or go on an all-day hike to reap the benefits: research has found that spending as little as 20 minutes in nature can reduce stress!
  • Get quality sleep. It’s a vicious cycle: high cortisol levels disrupt your sleep, but poor sleep can also contribute to higher cortisol levels! It can be tough to break the cycle, but by focusing on sleep hygiene, regulating your circadian rhythm, and keeping a regular sleep schedule, you can take steps toward improving sleep quality and getting your cortisol levels back in check. Our guide to natural sleep aids has some great tips on improving your sleep. 
  • Laugh! Not only is laughing fun and enjoyable, it’s also been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Most of the research on the topic has been done on “laughing yoga,” a form of yoga focused on — you guessed it — laughing, but it seems logical that the benefits would extend to laughter outside the yoga studio. 

As you can see, anyone wondering how to lower cortisol naturally has plenty of low-effort, free or cheap strategies to try. Even better: none of the tips above come with any side effects, and almost all of them are things that will improve your overall well-being in addition to helping you bring down your cortisol. 

The WellBe Takeaway on Cortisol and Your Health

For all the social media chatter about cortisol, there’s not a ton of deep understanding around what cortisol is, why it matters, and how to keep your levels in check. Avoid the misinformation out there and remember these key takeaways:

  • Cortisol is a hormone. Hormones are the chemical messengers in our bodies that help coordinate bodily functions by sending messages from one part of the body to another. Cortisol is a type of hormone known as a “steroid hormone,” and is produced by the adrenal gland.
  • Cortisol is known as the body’s stress hormone because its primary function is to regulate the body’s stress response. This means that when you encounter a stressful situation, your body responds by releasing cortisol, which puts you into fight-or-flight mode. This can be very useful in acute, temporary moments of extreme stress, but because of our fast-paced and high-stress lifestyles today, many people go about their life with chronically elevated cortisol levels. This can lead to a cascade of health problems.
  • The symptoms of high cortisol levels include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, extra abdominal fat, skin problems, headaches, irregular periods, mental health issues like depression or anxiety, and trouble sleeping. However, to know for sure if your cortisol levels are elevated, it can be helpful to get tested by your doctor. They can test cortisol through saliva, urine, or blood.
  • There are a number of potential causes of high cortisol levels, but the biggest one is stress. High cortisol can also be caused by certain medications (like corticosteroids and oral contraception), too much caffeine, a diet high in processed foods, or an underlying condition such as thyroid malfunction, PCOS, or a tumor on the adrenal gland.
  • If you want to know how to lower cortisol levels naturally, there are a lot of potential strategies. The most important thing you can do is take steps to reduce your sources of stress and to reset or improve how your nervous system handles inevitable stress; you can do this by taking stressful stimuli out of your life, and by incorporating a mindfulness or meditation practice, practicing deep breathing, or using a nervous system resetting technique like tapping. You can also lower cortisol by exercising regularly, spending time in nature, getting adequate sleep, taking certain supplements, and trying to find laughter and levity in everyday life.

Have you experienced any of the symptoms of high cortisol levels? Did you do something to lower your cortisol? Share your experience in the comments below!



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