It may seem like every TikTok video you've seen recently has told you to keep your cortisol — aka the "stress hormone" — as low as possible. But despite its slightly unsettling nickname, it's often misunderstood. And can actually play a beneficial role in how we function everyday...so long as it's managed.
What causes changes in cortisol levels?
First, a quick Bio 101 refresher: Cortisol is one of the hormones your body releases when a stress response is triggered. Which is also called your fight-or-flight response. And that’s not always bad: stress can motivate you to get things done. On top of that, cortisol also helps suppress inflammation and regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar, circadian rhythm, and metabolism.
Typically, after a stressful event passes, your cortisol levels go back to normal on their own. But in some cases, cortisol levels can stay high for extended periods of time, which can be detrimental to your health (more on that below). Chronic stress, certain medications, or specific types of cancer can cause elevated cortisol levels. In some cases, excessively high cortisol levels over an extended period of time can cause a condition called Cushing syndrome.
On the flip side, having too little cortisol can be a problem, too. Addison’s disease or hypopituitarism are two conditions where the body doesn’t produce enough cortisol. Thankfully, both can be treated with medicine.
What are low and high cortisol symptoms I should look out for?
Over time, high cortisol levels may contribute to…
High blood sugar
High blood pressure
Low cortisol symptoms may look like…
Low blood pressure
How do I know if my cortisol levels are healthy?
There's no way to know if you have healthy or “normal” cortisol levels without having a doctor perform a cortisol test. (Usually a urine or spit test.) So consider this your warning against social media posts that tell you how to self-diagnose high cortisol levels.
Can you tell me how to reduce cortisol levels?
Maintaining healthy cortisol levels has a lot to do with managing stress. If you’re dealing with chronic stress or feeling on edge lately, experts recommend incorporating some of this into your routine:
Laugh. We know it sounds silly, but laughter can help stop the release of cortisol. Feel free to use this as an excuse to binge your favorite comedy.
Eat certain foods. Snack on magnesium-rich foods, which can help stabilize cortisol. Add: Avocados, nuts, and beans to your grocery list.
Get enough sleep. There's a strong connection between cortisol and sleep. If you don't get enough sleep, your cortisol levels could rise — and increased cortisol can prevent you from getting good sleep. And we can't, ahem, stress this enough: You need seven to nine hours every night.
Exercise regularly. In ways that make you feel good. Because it can reduce stress and improve your sleep — both of which can help reduce cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a vital part of how your body works. But chronic stress and health issues can produce unhealthy cortisol levels — which can impact your health over time. If you think that may be you, make an appointment with your doctor. And try some stress management techniques to lower your cortisol levels in the meantime.
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