Cortisol is a steroid hormone that your adrenal glands, the endocrine glands on top of your kidneys, produce and release. Cortisol affects several aspects of your body and mainly helps regulate your body's response to stress.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone that your adrenal glands produce and release.
Hormones are chemicals that coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles and other tissues. These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.
Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone. They suppress inflammation in all of your bodily tissues and control metabolism in your muscles, fat, liver and bones. Glucocorticoids also affect sleep-wake cycles.
Cortisol is an essential hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. It plays many important roles, including:
Your body continuously monitors your cortisol levels to maintain steady levels (homeostasis). Higher-than-normal or lower-than-normal cortisol levels can be harmful to your health.
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Cortisol is widely known as the “stress hormone.” However, it has many important effects and functions throughout your body aside from regulating your body’s stress response.
It’s also important to remember that, biologically speaking, there are multiple different kinds of stress, including:
Your body releases cortisol when you experience any of these types of stress.
Almost all tissues in your body have glucocorticoid receptors. Because of this, cortisol can affect nearly every organ system in your body, including:
More specifically, cortisol affects your body in the following ways:
Optimum cortisol levels are necessary for life and for maintaining several bodily functions. If you have consistently high or low cortisol levels, it can have negative impacts on your overall health.
Your body has an elaborate system to regulate your cortisol levels.
Your hypothalamus, a small area of your brain involved in hormonal regulation, and your pituitary gland, a tiny gland located below your brain, regulate the production of cortisol in your adrenal glands. When the levels of cortisol in your blood fall, your hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which directs your pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates your adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.
In order to have optimal levels of cortisol in your body, your hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands must all be functioning properly.
Healthcare providers can measure your cortisol levels through blood, urine (pee) or saliva (spit) tests. They will determine which test is best depending on your symptoms.
The level of cortisol in your blood, urine and saliva normally peaks in the early morning and declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest level around midnight. This pattern can change if you work a night shift and sleep at different times of the day.
For most tests that measure cortisol levels in your blood, the normal ranges are:
Normal ranges can vary from lab to lab, time to time and person to person. If you need to get a cortisol level test, your healthcare provider will interpret your results and let you know if you need to get further testing.
Experiencing abnormally high levels of cortisol (hypercortisolism) for an extended period of time is usually considered Cushing’s syndrome, which is a rare condition. Causes of higher-than-normal cortisol levels and Cushing’s syndrome include:
The symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome depend on how elevated your cortisol levels are. Common signs and symptoms of higher-than-normal cortisol levels include:
Having lower-than-normal cortisol levels (hypocortisolism) is considered adrenal insufficiency. There are two types of adrenal insufficiency: primary and secondary. The causes of adrenal insufficiency include:
You can also have lower-than-normal cortisol levels after stopping treatment with corticosteroid medications, especially if you stop taking them very quickly after a long period of use.
Symptoms of lower-than-normal cortisol levels, or adrenal insufficiency, include:
If you have Cushing’s syndrome (very high levels of cortisol) you’ll need medical treatment to lower your cortisol levels. Treatment usually involves medication and/or surgery. You’ll also need medical treatment if you have lower-than-normal cortisol levels.
In general, though, there are several everyday things you can do to try to lower your cortisol levels and keep them at optimal ranges, including:
If you experience symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome or adrenal insufficiency, contact your healthcare provider.
If you’re concerned about your daily stress levels, talk to your provider about steps you can take to minimize your stress and stay healthy.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cortisol is an essential hormone that impacts several aspects of your body. While there are several things you can do to try to limit your stress, and therefore manage your cortisol levels, sometimes having abnormally high or low levels of cortisol is out of your control.
If you experience symptoms of high or low cortisol levels, such as weight gain or loss and high or low blood pressure, respectively, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider. They can run some simple tests to see if your adrenal glands or pituitary gland are responsible for your symptoms.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/10/2021.
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