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Dr Nicky Keay
Chief Medical Officer & endocrinology expert
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone and is produced by the adrenal glands which are small triangular shaped glands located just above your kidneys.
Cortisol has an important role in the body’s fight or flight response during a crisis, but it also plays a key role in regulating blood pressure, controlling your sleep/wake cycle, reducing inflammation, weight and increasing your energy levels.
Factors like poor sleep, a stressful lifestyle or even participating in mid to high-intensity exercise can cause a high cortisol level. Finding out how these stressors (or others) may be impacting on your body is important because prolonged stress can prevent cortisol from working at all and lead to a condition called adrenal burnout.
Our finger prick cortisol blood test will show if your cortisol levels are within a healthy range. The normal range for cortisol when taken in the morning is 166-507 nmol/L for women and 113-456 for men.
The top 6 symptoms of high cortisol levels are:
You may already be experiencing some of the symptoms associated with increased cortisol, if you are, it’s worth checking them with our cortisol test.
Our research shows that 85% of UK adults regularly experience stress and 54% of those who are stressed worry about the impact it is having on their health.
The main symptoms of low cortisol are:
Low cortisol also causes low sodium which can also make you feel weak and tired.
If your body is unable to produce cortisol in response to stress, as in the case of Addison’s disease, this should be investigated by your GP. This will be indicated by low morning levels of cortisol.
If your cortisol levels are outside the normal range, one of our GPs will provide advice alongside your results.
Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys. Cortisol shows a diurnal variation, in other words, highest on waking in the morning and lowest in the early hours of the morning. For this reason, cortisol is usually measured by a blood test at a standard time of day: around 9 am. Cortisol increases as a physiological response to stress: internal stress from under-eating, or external stress from high exercise training loads, psychological stressors and disrupted sleep patterns. Therefore, measuring blood cortisol levels can indicate levels of “stress” and appropriate advice can be given to address these.
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Blood concentrations of cortisol increase during times of stress. The hormone also has a role in immune function, too. So, levels can be affected by many factors including exercise, obesity, heat, cold and infection.
Yes. Cortisol has a key role in the stimulation of fat and carbohydrate breakdown which the body uses for energy. It also stimulates the release of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. So, this can result in an increased appetite and may lead to weight gain if your body releases large amounts of cortisol in response to stress.
Yes, research shows that cortisol is a sleep disruptor. If you experience broken sleep or sleep deprivation you will be at greater risk of increased cortisol levels.
Some research shows that people who have insomnia may have increased cortisol levels particularly in the evening, making it difficult to sleep.
We recommend taking a test every 3-4 months, so you can track and establish your levels.
No, physical factors can cause stress, too. Physical activity can put great stress upon the body, especially mid to high-intensity exercise. Therefore, overtraining, often a problem for athletes, can cause high cortisol levels.
Yes. Mid to high intensity exercise can increase cortisol levels due to the stress this type of exercise places on the body.
Exercise is an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle and research shows it is key to managing stress and lowering the risk of anxiety and depression. Therefore, it is important to plan your exercise and subsequent rest periods. If you experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), lowering the intensity and duration of training will allow your muscles to recover adequately. Alternatively, training different muscle groups on different days is beneficial for resting muscles.
If cortisol levels are increased due to stress, it’s important to identify the triggers. For example, if you are overtraining, you may need to reduce the time or intensity of the exercise or if you’re overweight making improvements to your lifestyle like increasing physical activity and improving your diet can help.
A stressful job can also be a trigger for increased cortisol levels, as can modern life in general. Therefore, it is important to find ways to cope with these stressors. Some people find exercise helps, even if it’s a gentle walk or practising mindfulness or meditation may help.
If your levels are low or you need further advice, you should consult a medical professional.