Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it is released in response to stress and plays a crucial role in the body’s stress response. However, there is a growing concern about the potential health consequences of having high or low cortisol levels. In this article, we will explore the role of cortisol, the impact of medical conditions on cortisol levels, lifestyle habits that affect cortisol, and the importance of testing cortisol levels for better health.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located just above the kidneys. It is a vital hormone that helps regulate a wide range of biological functions, including metabolism, immune response, and blood pressure regulation. Cortisol is released in response to stress, but it also follows a diurnal pattern, with levels being highest in the morning and gradually decreasing throughout the day.

What Is Cortisol?

Medical Conditions and High Cortisol

Having high cortisol levels for an extended period can lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome is often caused by the excessive production of cortisol due to an adrenal gland tumor or prolonged use of corticosteroid medications. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include weight gain, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, and mood disorders. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, approximately 10 to 15 people out of every million are diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome each year.
(To learn more about Signs of High Cortisol Levels  please refer to this article)

What Does It Mean to Have Low Cortisol?

On the other end of the spectrum, low cortisol levels can indicate a condition called adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol. Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include fatigue, weight loss, low blood pressure, and darkening of the skin. While cortisol deficiency is relatively rare, it can be life-threatening if not properly managed. The prevalence of adrenal insufficiency is estimated to be around 100 to 140 cases per million people.

Lifestyle Habits That Affect Cortisol Levels

Several lifestyle factors can influence cortisol levels. High levels of chronic stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet can elevate cortisol over time. Chronic stress triggers the release of cortisol, and prolonged elevation can lead to negative health consequences. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to disrupt the natural cortisol rhythm, causing higher overall levels. Additionally, an unhealthy diet, high in sugar and processed foods, has been associated with increased cortisol levels.

On the other hand, certain lifestyle habits can help lower cortisol levels. Regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, and maintaining a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have been shown to have a positive impact on cortisol levels.

Lifestyle Habits That Affect Cortisol Levels

Testing Cortisol Levels

Measuring cortisol levels can be done using various methods, including blood tests, saliva tests, and urine tests. Each method has its advantages and limitations. Blood tests provide a snapshot of cortisol levels at the time of the test and are commonly used in diagnosing medical conditions related to cortisol. Saliva and urine tests measure cortisol metabolites over a 24-hour period, giving a more comprehensive assessment of overall cortisol production.

It is important to note that cortisol levels can fluctuate throughout the day, so multiple tests may be necessary for an accurate assessment. It is also essential to interpret cortisol levels in the context of an individual’s symptoms and medical history, as cortisol levels alone may not provide a complete picture of a person’s health.


While it is crucial to have balanced cortisol levels for optimal health, it is equally important to approach the topic of cortisol with a balanced perspective. High cortisol levels resulting from medical conditions can have severe health implications, and low cortisol levels can be equally detrimental. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits and managing stress effectively can help maintain cortisol levels within an optimal range. However, testing cortisol levels should be done in consultation with a healthcare professional to assess individual health conditions accurately.


  1. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Understanding the stress response
  2. National Library of Medicine, Physiology, Cortisol
  3. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet