Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland. The amount released is in response to stress and can affect blood pressure, among other bodily functions. Also known as “the stress hormone,” cortisol is important for the body’s ability to prepare for stressful situations. A slight increase in cortisol levels allows a person to have a short burst of energy and increase in immunity and memory. Cortisol is also important in returning the body back to normal.
Cortisol levels vary throughout the day. It is typical for levels to be lowest at night before bedtime and highest in the morning upon waking up. There are certain environmental factors that can throw off the levels slightly, such as an abnormal sleep schedule due to varying work shifts. In a normal adult, cortisol levels are between 5 to 31 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dl) in the morning and 3 to 13mcg/dl in the afternoon. Normal levels are lower for children and even less for newborns.
Cushing’s Disorder is a result of overactive adrenal glands producing too much cortisol usually caused by a benign adrenal tumour or a pituitary tumour. Symptoms of Cushing’s Disorder include obesity, skin that bruises easily, high blood pressure and increased blood sugar. Other factors can raise cortisol levels, too, including pregnancy, outside stress, illness, hyperthyroidism and certain medications.
If cortisol levels are low, it could be due to Addison’s disease. This occurs when low levels are the result of adrenal damage. Addison’s disease is rare (affecting about one to four out of every 100,000 people in the U.S.). Symptoms include weight loss, low blood pressure, dehydration and fatigue. Hypothyroidism and steroid hormones may also be the reason for low levels of cortisol.
Cortisol levels are important to check because abnormal levels may indicate certain disorders, including Cushing’s Disorder and Addison’s disease. Tests can indicate whether the adrenal gland is overactive or underactive. Blood samples are taken over time to determine if cortisol levels are consistently high or consistently low. Other ways to test cortisol levels are through urine tests and saliva. Blood, however, is the most used and the most effective.
Maintaining Healthy Levels
It is important for a person’s health, physically and mentally, to maintain healthy levels of cortisol. For those who have demanding lifestyles, it is good to learn different stress-relieving activities. This could be anything from yoga to reading to taking naps. Eating more foods, especially with more carbohydrates, may also lead to higher secretions of cortisol. Certainly get tested if you think your levels are due to more serious factors like Cushing’s Disorder or Addison’s disease. Adjusting your lifestyle may be the simplest and healthiest answer for sustaining healthy cortisol levels.