Amidst all the health and wellness trends hitting you through the media and your social media, you’ve probably heard about how to control your cortisol levels. Should you be tall or should you be short? We don’t blame you for feeling confused and overwhelmed by something other than tracking and managing.
First of all, what is cortisol?
Cortisol is your main stress hormone, which helps your body regulate its response to any type of stress, whether it’s physiological, emotional or traumatic, says Suneet Singh, MD, an emergency physician and medical director of CareHive Health in Austin, Texas. . It is also a steroid hormone produced and released by the adrenal glands.
“When the body is under stress, cortisol levels rise to help deal with the underlying problem,” he explains.
According to Dr. Singh, cortisol helps the body regulate several important factors and potential problems, including:
- Blood pressure
- Sugar in the blood
- sleep/wake patterns
- inflammation levels
What causes abnormal cortisol levels?
Cortisol is not bad; you need it to help regulate your responses to life. The regulation involves a very complex interplay of feedback loops between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, says Dr. Singh.
“In general, cortisol levels tend to peak in the late morning and gradually decline throughout the day,” he explains. “When a stressful event occurs, the increase in cortisol will work in conjunction with our ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms to up-regulate or down-regulate bodily functions. [Affected systems include] the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system or the immune system”.
In addition to the normal processes that trigger or suppress cortisol release, levels can also be affected by different medical conditions, says Dr. Singh. For example, if someone has abnormally high levels of cortisol, this is called Cushing’s syndrome, which is usually caused by a tumor that affects any of the glands that are involved in the process of producing cortisol.
When people suffer from abnormally low levels of cortisol, it is called Addison’s disease. It usually occurs due to a dysfunction of the adrenal glands, but it could also be the result of abnormal functioning of any of the other glands in the process of producing cortisol.
Finally, if you use corticosteroid medications like prednisone or dexamethasone, prolonged use will result in excessive cortisol production, says Dr. Singh.
“If the drug isn’t tapered off properly when it’s stopped, the body’s ability to create cortisol can be permanently impaired,” he says.
What are some signs and symptoms of abnormal cortisol levels?
According to Dr. Singh, most people will not experience any symptoms related to daily cortisol fluctuations. However, if cortisol levels are pathologically high or low for a prolonged period, such as several weeks or months, you may start to notice some of the following symptoms:
Symptoms of high cortisol:
- Weight gain
- high blood sugar
- Muscular weakness
- sexual dysfunction
- purple stretch marks
- Humor changes
- Low cortisol symptoms:
- low blood sugar
- Low blood pressure
- poor appetite
When should you check your cortisol levels?
If you notice that you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you can ask your doctor to test your cortisol levels. According to Dr. Singh, your provider can check cortisol levels through several methods, including blood, urine, and saliva tests. (Find out more about cortisol tests here.)
“Different labs have different ranges of what’s normal, so if you’re interested in monitoring your cortisol levels, check with your health care professional to see what [method] it’s what’s best for you,” he says. “In addition to the type of cortisol test administered, we also [need to] determine what time(s) of the day to get tested, if other appropriate laboratory tests are needed, and if imaging tests are required in case of abnormally high or low results.”
Can you control cortisol levels on your own?
The good news is that if your doctor tells you that your cortisol levels are not at an ideal level, you can take steps to get your numbers where they should be. According to Dr. Singh, some simple ways to promote optimal cortisol levels include:
- Follow a regular sleep routine every night to increase your chances of getting enough sleep.
- Do cardio and strength exercise on a regular basis.
- Reduce stress with a practice such as daily mindfulness meditation and/or deep breathing exercises.
- Reduce caffeine intake as much as possible.
- Maintain an active social life filled with hobbies and healthy relationships.
The bottom line: Talk to your doctor if you think your cortisol levels are low so you can get an accurate diagnosis and management plan.
Emilia Benton is a freelance writer and editor based in Houston. In addition to Women’s Health, she has contributed health, fitness, and wellness content to Runner’s World, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and POPSUGAR, among other publications. She is also a 10-time marathon runner, frequent traveler, and avid hobby baker.
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