Make no mistake — cortisol is a lifesaving hormone. When you are under stress it comes to your rescue, mobilizing carbohydrates and fat for instant energy. It also keeps our blood sugar steady while we’re sleeping and helps us wake up in the morning.

destructive high cortisol

But when this “helpful” hormone is over-produced, our bodies suffer.

Cortisol runs unnaturally high as a result of our stress-filled lives, and that causes all kinds of symptoms and long-term health problems down the road. High cortisol levels can be deceiving — they allow you to be ultra productive, but at the same time they rob you of much needed sleep and keep you feeling wired too much of the time.

Sustained high cortisol levels have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity and type 2 diabetes. We can now say very clearly: normalizing cortisol levels is crucial to lifelong health.

Cortisol’s natural rhythm gone wrong

Cortisol has a natural rhythm that is tightly connected to your daily cycle, which is called your circadian rhythm. Cortisol is usually lowest between midnight and 4:00 AM and then gradually increases until around 8:00 AM, in time for you to wake up and start the day. After 8:00 AM, cortisol declines incrementally throughout the day to gradually prepare you for sleep. This daily rhythm is the norm unless you encounter a stressful event. Your body should increase cortisol and adrenaline temporarily to handle the stressful event and then return to normal.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Yet when we live in a constant high-alert state, our cortisol levels remain unnaturally high and can cause all kinds of health problems, including:

  • Impaired healing and cell regeneration
  • Disrupted digestion, mental function and metabolism
  • Weakened ability to fight infection
  • Imbalances in other important hormones such as DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
  • Loss of muscle and bone
  • Mood swings and depression
  • Hair and skin problems
  • Thyroid imbalances
  • Low sex drive
  • Sleeplessness
  • Weight gain (especially around the belly)

How to know if your cortisol is too high

Unfortunately standard tests of adrenal function aren’t very helpful. If your primary care practitioner calls for a typical laboratory cortisol test, it will be difficult to see anything more than the most severe cases of adrenal dysfunction, such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome. We recommend finding a practitioner who is willing to do salivary cortisol testing, which measures cortisol levels and a hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) throughout the day. This kind of test provides a more accurate assessment of cortisol levels and whether they have become imbalanced. We typically suggest testing between 6:00 and 8:00 AM (within an hour of waking), between 11:00 and Noon, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, and then again between 10:00 PM and Midnight. This should give you a good overview of how your cortisol levels vary throughout the day.

But a lab test isn’t necessary to determine if you have adrenal fatigue or high cortisol. You can simply check in with how you feel. If your energy level is very low in the morning but seems to increase right around the time everyone else is getting ready for bed, your cortisol cycle is probably out of whack. It’s a good indication that you will reap huge benefits by taking steps to rebalance your adrenal glands.

You can’t restore healthy adrenal function without balancing cortisol

Cortisol levels that remain high often lead to a downward health spiral, where you go from feeling wired to feeling tired and wired, and then ultimately to feeling exhausted. This final stage of adrenal imbalance is known as adrenal exhaustion. Restoring your cortisol to its natural levels is the only way to regain adrenal health.

Women have used our Adrenal Health Program to help normalize their cortisol levels naturally. Doing so will eliminate symptoms, increase energy (without feeling “wired”) and encourage better sleep. And you can balance cortisol in several ways, including taking adrenal-supportive herbs and nutrients, and making dietary changes and lifestyle modifications to calm the stress response. Read more about our method in our natural approach to adrenal health article.