Explore Cortisol: Levels, Diagnosis and Control

Throughout our lives, we go through many situations, both good and bad, and often these situations make us feel different. Ever wonder why we feel different when we are in certain situations, especially in stressful environments?  
In this article we will discuss this and how cortisol plays a role in shaping our response.

Understanding Cortisol

To fully understand why we feel the way we feel during a stressful event, first, we need to understand what cortisol is and how it works in our body.

The Role of Cortisol in the Body

In simple words, cortisol is a hormone often called stress hormone which is produced and released by adrenal glands. In our body, we have two adrenal glands which are triangular in shape and are located on top of each kidney. It plays a major role and it influences almost all organs and tissues in our bodies.  

Functions of Cortisol

As mentioned in the above section, cortisol affects our organs and tissues. From regulating blood sugar and blood pressure to suppressing inflammation and controlling your metabolism, cortisol plays a crucial role in maintaining balance and functions of our tissues and organs. Here are some of the main functions of cortisol.

Stress Response

There are different types of stress, for example, acute stress which you experience when you are in danger for a short period of time, such as public speaking, confrontations, etc. Chronic and traumatic stress are the other two types of stress that one may experience due to prolonged personal issues or childhood trauma, sexual assault, etc.  When you go through these forms of stress, your body releases cortisol to help you mobilize energy or mold your body’s response to stressors.

Metabolic Regulation

Metabolism is a chemical process that continuously goes on inside our body which allows normal functioning of our body. Processes such as breaking down of nutrients from what we eat or converting glucose into energy. Cortisol coordinates metabolic processes to fulfill the energy requirement of the body, especially during times of stress or psychological challenges.

Immune System Modulation

Cortisol acts as a conductor which influences our immune system to create a balanced response. For example, when you encounter a stressful situation or when your immune system is causing damage to your healthy tissues, cortisol interacts with immune cells and reduces the inflammatory molecules. It also influences the production of antibodies and overall activity levels of immune cells. However, in chronic situations, it may suppress the immune system.

Cortisol Levels

Usually, our bodies produce the right amount of cortisol and several bodily mechanics are in place to control fluctuations in cortisol levels in the body. For example, there are areas in and near the brain like the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that can regulate the production and release of cortisol in adrenal glands whenever it’s necessary. So, let’s understand different levels of cortisol and how it impacts body functions.

Normal Cortisol Levels

Normal cortisol levels mean that your body is producing the correct amount of cortisol which makes the body function normally. Under this, cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. When you wake up early in the morning, the level of cortisol is the highest and it constantly declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest by midnight. It works the opposite for people working night shifts. There is no universal standard for cortisol levels as it greatly depends on many factors like age, time of the day, health condition, stress level, etc.

High Cortisol Levels: Causes and Effects

There are two ways to consider high cortisol levels, short-term and long-term. As mentioned at the start of our discussion, a short-term burst of cortisol isn’t something people need to worry about, as it is our body’s healthy response to certain situations. However, this is totally the opposite in the long-term. Experiencing high levels of cortisol (Cushing’s syndrome) for a longer period of time can lead to inflammation, weakened immunity, and other psychical and psychological problems.  

There are many reasons why our body releases high levels of cortisol for extended periods, some of the reasons include stress, medication, adrenal gland tumors, and pituitary gland issues.

Low Cortisol Levels: Symptoms and Implications

Low cortisol levels also known as hypocortisolism can happen if there is any problem in your adrenal glands or pituitary gland. Any damage or dysfunction in adrenal glands can impact the production of cortisol. As a result of having low cortisol levels in the body can reduce energy and make one more fatigued. It can weaken muscles, decrease blood sugar levels, weaken your immune system, and can cause mood and digestive problems.

Causes of Variations in Cortisol Levels

In our body, the level of cortisol fluctuates throughout the day which is natural. However, if there are any variations in cortisol levels outside this natural process, then it could be due to underlying conditions. Here are some of the factors that can cause variations in cortisol levels.


As you know cortisol is also known as stress hormone and our body releases this hormone when we are in dangerous or threatening situations. But it becomes a problem when your body is under constant stress, as prolonged elevation of cortisol levels can impact both physical and mental health.

Pituitary gland issues

Another major reason for variation in cortisol levels is due to issues in the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is located in the base of our brain which is instrumental in regulating cortisol production. Any injury, tumor, or inflammation can impede the production, causing variations in cortisol levels.

Adrenal gland tumors

Adrenal glands hold a central position as far as cortisol production and release are concerned. Damage or injury to adrenal glands significantly impacts the production of cortisol, resulting in insufficient output which consequently leads to many health problems.  

Diagnosis of Cortisol Levels

There are multiple ways one can test their cortisol levels and as the cortisol levels rise and fall throughout the day, health care professionals may recommend different methods to test the same. Here are a few methods to check cortisol levels.

Urine (pee)

A cortisol urine test is also known as a urinary-free cortisol test which tests the amount of cortisol is there in your urine, and this test is done over 24 hours. While doing this test it is important to inform your healthcare expert of any existing medication as some medications may impede the accuracy of the test.  

In order to collect the sample for this test, on the first day as soon as you wake up, you urinate into the toilet and discard the first sample. From then onwards, you collect all the urine samples in the provided container for the next 24 hours. Post 24 hours you need to return the samples to your healthcare provider as instructed.

Saliva (spit) Tests

This test is typically done at home, you will be provided with a kit to collect your saliva samples and you will be instructed by your healthcare expert about what time you need to collect the samples. In the kit, you will receive a swab and a container to store samples. Some studies show that the accuracy of cortisol saliva tests is about 90%.  

How does the body control cortisol levels?

Our body is a complicated machinery that involves a network of interconnected systems and processes, including ways to regulate our cortisol levels. In our brain, there is an area called the hypothalamus which regulates hormones, and the pituitary gland regulates the production of cortisol in adrenal glands. When the cortisol levels drop in our blood, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which instructs the pituitary gland to produce another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone which triggers adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol. This way our body regulates the cortisol levels.

Measuring Cortisol Levels

Measuring cortisol levels is important as it helps in diagnosing issues related to adrenal glands, chronic stress, or other medical conditions impacting overall health. Here are a few common methods you measure cortisol levels and what it says about your health.

Methods for Testing Cortisol Levels

The cortisol levels can be measured in three different ways, through blood, saliva, and urine. In the above section, we have informed you how cortisol saliva and cortisol urine tests are done. In comparison to the other two, the cortisol blood test is relatively simple. Here, your healthcare provider uses a thin needle to collect your blood sample and then into the vial for further lab tests.

Interpreting Cortisol Test Results

Interpreting cortisol tests is complex. Your healthcare provider will analyze your results considering factors like the test time, age, medical conditions, and normal ranges, which vary depending on the lab and measurement unit.

Generally, high cortisol may indicate Cushing's syndrome, tumors, injury, or steroid use. Low cortisol could be linked to Addison's disease, adrenal hemorrhage, or sudden stop of steroid use.  However, stress and illness can also affect cortisol levels.  

Strategies to Control Cortisol

As you now understand what cortisol is, its role in our bodily functions, and its positive and negative impacts on our body. Now let’s understand a few effective strategies to control cortisol levels.

Stress Management Techniques

Stress is the common link that connects to many chronic and lifestyle diseases and once learn to control stress, we can gain control and manage many of the conditions including cortisol levels. Fortunately, there are methods and practices you can add to your daily life to control your stress levels. Some of the stress management techniques are meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, leisure activities, and yoga.

Exercise regularly

Our body is like a machine and similar to machines, our body too needs regular maintenance and repair. And exercise is what keeps our body finely tuned and operating at its best. When we engage in regular exercise we make our body tired and this promotes quality sleep. So, ensure to exercise at least 30 minutes a day and 3-4 days a week minimum for longevity and optimal performance.

Enjoy yourself and laugh

Life can be tough and demanding sometimes, but it is important to enjoy even the smallest joy that life offers to the fullest. Going out with family, and doing something that makes you happy can do wonders for mental and physical health. Hobbies like reading, gardening, or playing sports promote well-being, plus don’t forget to laugh as it soothes tension, cools down stress response, and releases endorphins which reduce stress and offer relief from pain.

Regulate Cortisol Levels with Mindtalk

Chronic can impact your cortisol balance which can lead to many health-related problems. Learning techniques to manage your stress and bringing a healthy lifestyle to your routine can help you maintain your cortisol balance. But if you are looking for a partner to help you out, then look no further. Mindtalk can be the partner you are looking for. At Mindtalk, we offer a wealth of benefits, cutting-edge technologies, and experienced professionals to help you reach your goal of well-being.


1.What does cortisol do in the body?

Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, plays a crucial role in regulating metabolism, immune response, and stress levels. It helps the body respond to stress by increasing blood sugar, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism.

2.What are the symptoms of high cortisol?

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, thinning skin, easy bruising, fatigue, muscle weakness, mood swings, high blood pressure, and irregular menstrual periods in women. Cognitive issues like memory and concentration problems may also arise.

3.How do I know if I have high cortisol?

High cortisol levels may manifest as weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, irregular sleep patterns, fatigue, high blood pressure, and mood swings. A healthcare provider can diagnose high cortisol through blood or saliva tests, along with assessing symptoms and medical history.

4.What is the function of cortisol?

Cortisol, a steroid hormone, regulates various bodily functions, including metabolism, immune response, and stress management. It helps control blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and aids in the body's response to stress. Chronic elevated levels can lead to health issues like weight gain, immune suppression, and cardiovascular problems.

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