graphic cortisol

What is Cortisol?

That question might raise your stress levels by looking at it. Cortisol is the stress hormone. And what follows is an “inside baseball” look at cortisol, why you should pay attention to it (because you’re likely experiencing symptoms due to high cortisol, anyway), and how you can improve your overall health by bringing it back in line. We get nerdy about it, for sure. Cortisol is the thing nobody really talks about that affects everything else. It’s good for you. Read on to find out when, why, and how.

A Comprehensive Guide To Your Body’s Greatest Asset And Threat

Cortisol — aka the “stress hormone” or “master hormone” — holds the keys to your physical and mental wellness. In this article, we’ll unpack everything you need to know about cortisol, including its production, how it affects your body and mind, and most importantly, how to keep unruly fluctuations in check. Buckle up, friends, because knowledge is power, and you’re about to become a cortisol-crushing expert.

What You Need To Know About Stress But Haven’t Been Told

Cortisol is your primary stress hormone, also known as your “fight or flight” hormone. Its primary purpose is to regulate metabolism during stress, giving your body the energy to handle high-intensity stressors. It’s also vital to keep your body functioning properly.

However, when cortisol is consistently elevated over long periods of time, it can turn a good thing into a not-so-good thing. Chronic stress can lead to high levels of cortisol throughout the day — something many of us are familiar with as we age and are exposed to today's modern-day way of life.

You see, our bodies are designed to be in sync with the sun and the moon, quite literally. Although we have developed incredible technological innovations, humans have yet to evolve our primal health and survival needs to match these technological demands. Prior to the 90's, we were free of the demands and distractions of the internet, email, smart phones, and social media, making it much easier to unplug. Flash forward 30 years and we have become dependent on these technologies, addicted to the speed of information, and have found it much more challenging to adopt screen-free habits.

These days, it's common to have chronically elevated cortisol levels. High cortisol is now a well-documented cause of a variety of health issues, ranging from a minor “eh, I'm feeling a bit run down” to the extremes, where our minds and bodies can cease to function altogether.

Most of us don't know the symptoms of high cortisol, much less what it takes to bring it back into balance. Additionally, we are programmed to try and fix our symptoms instead of adjusting the root of what's causing them in the first place.

What Does Cortisol Do, You Ask?

Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, released into the blood, and transported throughout the body as it responds to stress. Almost every cell has a cortisol receptor, which means that nearly every organ system can be affected by cortisol. Like Ron Burgundy, cortisol is kind of a big deal.

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Cortisol works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. When in balance, cortisol enhances vitality, alertness, and relaxation while helping reduce the effects of stress and nervousness.

What is a Normal Cortisol Level?

Now that you’re familiar with cortisol, let’s dive into what normal cortisol levels are for men and women. Healthy AM cortisol levels for men and women typically range between 6.2-19.4 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) in the morning and 2.3-11.9 mcg/dL in the afternoon.

You’ll notice that cortisol levels vary based on the time of day. As with most of your sex hormones, your cortisol also works on a particular cycle or rhythm when your body is functioning normally.

The Ideal Cortisol Rhythm

The level of cortisol in your blood will naturally rise and fall throughout the day but tend to be higher in the morning when you wake up and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. (And no, this has nothing to do with how often you pee, that would be urinals)

Suppose your cortisol is operating as it should. In that case, cortisol levels typically reach their lowest levels at night so you can get deep regenerative and restorative sleep. As you get closer to waking up, levels begin to rise. Cortisol reaches its highest level early in the morning to help your body get up and running before declining throughout the day.

Diseases, irregular work shifts, sleeping a lot during the day and getting disruptive inconsistent sleep at night can disrupt the normal pattern. Still, the most common disruption of a daily rhythm and optimum cortisol production is stress.

The key is to get your body on its ideal cortisol level “schedule” with the right amounts of cortisol, ebbing and flowing, at the appropriate times of the day along with your circadian rhythm.

Balanced Vs High Cortisol: What Are Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels?


How to Test Your Cortisol Levels at Home

While it’s usually best to get your cortisol levels tested through a healthcare professional, there are several cortisol tests available that can help you test your cortisol levels at home. The two most popular types of home tests include:

Saliva Test

At-home saliva tests are available for purchase online or in health stores. These tests involve collecting your saliva at various points throughout the day and then sending it off for lab analysis.

Urine Test

A 24-hour urine test is another option where you collect all your urine output over a 24-hour period. This will then be analyzed by a lab for cortisol levels.

If you feel a bit weird about putting your bodily fluids in a container and sending it off with some guy from UPS, you can request a blood test from your doctor, which will measure your cortisol levels.

Once you’ve got your results, you can check if you’re within the normal range or if any kind of intervention is required.

One thing to keep in mind is that these cortisol tests provide a snapshot in time, which makes it difficult to get a baseline. You may have to run multiple tests over a period of months to get a better picture.

Now that you know how to tell if you have elevated cortisol and how to test for it at home, it’s time to figure out why you may have elevated cortisol.

Balanced Vs High Cortisol: What Are Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels?

You can have high cortisol due to pituitary or adrenal gland issues, medications, elevated estrogen levels (for women), or living in a state of perpetual stress. One of the leading causes of perpetually high cortisol is never-ending stress. Cell phones. Email. Social media. Driving. Finances. It can build up.

Your body is hardwired to have short, acute cortisol spikes and then immediately regulate cortisol back to normal levels. Like back in caveman days when our ancestors needed to run for the hills from that saber-toothed cat—then shrug it off and go back to picking berries.

Or like now when you slam the brakes when that 18-wheeler cuts out in front of you. Our bodies are NOT made for constantly elevated cortisol levels throughout the day and night. Yet, sadly, this is more common than not.

Most people are battling high cortisol levels due to multiple life stressors. Our world disrupts our natural state of being as it keeps us “on” at all times.

Online, on the phone, on email, on social, on a new crazy diet, on two cups of coffee, on medication, on your kids’ homework, on Zoom, on your 3:30 meeting, on work around the clock, on a cocktail or two or maybe some cannabis to feel comfortable; on viagra, on your best behavior, on your strongest workout… And doing it all on a few hours of sleep.

But your body cannot distinguish between the life-threatening events that require bursts of cortisol to stay alive and everything that has you “on.” With everything on, our bodies are pumping out cortisol like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

So, when is stress normal and when is it bad? And how do we differentiate between them?

Cortisol, Testosterone, and HGH

When cortisol levels are too high for too long, it can cause the suppression of testosterone and human growth hormone Relationship Between Circulating Cortisol and Testosterone: Influence of Physical Exercise - PMCne (hGH). In fact, cortisol can be an “enemy” to testosterone, especially when you benefit from keeping testosterone and other protective hormones high. (And yes, women need testosterone too.)

When Cortisol Is Too High, Your Body Cannot Produce Enough Enzyme 11Βhsd-1 (We Know That’s A Mouthful) To Counteract The Cortisol, Leaving You With A Surplus Of The Stress Hormone And The Destruction Of Any Freshly-Made Testosterone. In The Same Vein, It Can Inhibit The Production Of Hgh, Which Is Essential For Building Muscle, Exercise And Illness Recovery, A Well-Functioning Metabolism, Healthy Skin, Hair, And Nails, Cellular Repair, And Overall Maintaining A Sense Of Youth In All Dimensions. Cortisol Inhibits It Because The Only Time Hgh Is Produced Is When You’re In Deep Sleep…Which Doesn’t Happen With Elevated Cortisol.
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We’ve seen how cortisol affects testosterone and HGH but what’s the relationship between cortisol and estrogen?

Cortisol And Estrogen: How Does Estrogen Affect Cortisol Levels?

Estrogen and cortisol share an interesting relationship. High levels of estrogen have been shown to increase cortisol levels, setting off a chain reaction that affects your mood, weight, and overall health.

Therefore women experience more significant fluctuations in cortisol during their menstrual cycle, as estrogen levels rise and fall.

This isn’t the only way cortisol and estrogen clash.

A study conducted by Dr. Breen and colleagues found that continuous infusion of cortisol caused disruptions with luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone, and estradiol hormone (the most common form of estrogen).

The researchers found that the continuous infusion of cortisol either prevented or delayed the estradiol peak and LH and FSH surges. These peaks and surges are necessary for a functioning reproductive system because without them a woman can’t ovulate.

And if you can’t ovulate you can’t procreate, which is great if you don’t want to become pregnant but stress-inducing when you’re trying to start a family.

Menopause and Cortisol

While it’s normal for cortisol levels to rise as we age, cortisol seems to have a greater effect on menopausal women. In fact, studies show that women who had increased cortisol levels during the later stages of their menopause transition experienced more severe vasomotor symptoms, like hot flashes.

So keeping your cortisol in check when you’re going through menopause is crucial. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Which is why we’ve created the Hot Flash SystemTM.

One of the benefits of the Hot Flash SystemTM for women going through menopause is that bringing cortisol into balance allows your other hormones – like estrogen and testosterone – to come back to optimal levels and, as a result, you don’t go through your day with hot flashes and mood swings getting in the way. We just concluded a 100+ subject IRB (That’san acronym for “institutional review board”) and 100% of the participants saw an average of 80% reduction in their hot flash symptoms. Additionally, data shows that 95% of participants reported additional menopausal symptom relief, and 85% reported improved sleep quality and were more rested upon waking.

Where is Cortisol Produced?

Keeping our cortisol in check starts with understanding the source. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, the tiny cap-shaped organs that sit on top of your kidneys. But your adrenal glands aren’t a one-man band kind of setup.

Your brain also plays a crucial role in your cortisol production and regulation, specifically your hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Your adrenal glands work in tandem with your hypothalamus and pituitary gland to figure out when and how much cortisol your body needs to deal with stressors.

Ready for the nitty gritty, nerdy science?

The Science Behind It All

If you think we were getting technical and science-y, this next part takes it to the next level. Here is what physiologically happens when stress kicks in and cortisol goes to work.

There is a connection between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands that form the backbone of the body’s stress response system called the HPA-axis. The hypothalamus and pituitary are considered master glands; they control all your hormone-producing glands.

This is a cool feedback loop your body performs to regulate cortisol and keep you as balanced as possible, but the issue is, when it constantly tries to regulate high cortisol levels, it can tax your system, you can’t produce the hormones your body needs to function and it can cause many of the symptoms we’ve mentioned above.

Finally, we get to the important question, how to balance your cortisol levels naturally.

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How To Balance Cortisol Levels Naturally

Moving out of a stress-induced, heightened cortisol state into a balanced cortisol state is possible. You can no longer be held back by your body’s shortcomings, and rather, rewire them to perform and feel on your game in every aspect of life.

First Off, How’s Your Sleep?

Sleep is imperative because it involves the fluctuation of and connection between melatonin and cortisol, two hormones directly related to stress and overall bodily health. A good night’s sleep can actually ratchet down cortisol levels and quiet the fight or flight branch of your nervous system.

Most people live with disrupted sleep for a variety of reasons. Whatever it may be, if your body is not getting the proper deep sleep and REM it needs, it cannot regulate cortisol properly. Rebalance quiets disruption and gets your flow back.

“Let Food Be Thy Medicine”

The next important piece of the cortisol balancing puzzle is diet. A balanced, nutritionally dense diet with as little sugar and processed foods as possible is the goal. You’ve probably heard multiple healthcare providers harp on about diet when addressing just about any health condition. And for good reason. A healthy, balanced diet ensures you have a healthy body.

When you’re riddled with diseases and health conditions due to poor diet, your body pays the price. And often that results in more stress than it can handle. That’s right, being chronically ill also adds to chronic stress.

By looking after your body through a balanced diet, you help your body heal and reduce some of the stress it must deal with while fighting inflammation and other ailments caused by poor dietary choices.

Thankfully, there are also some foods that can help you naturally reduce cortisol.

What Foods Reduce Cortisol?

To help balance your cortisol levels, consider including these cortisol-lowering foods into your diet:


Fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds


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We had to ask the powers that be for approval on this one. You’re welcome.


Yogurt, kombucha, kimchi


Leafy greens, nuts, seeds

Exercise But Not Too Much

Once you’ve got the sleep and diet nailed, you need to address the barbell in the room. Exercise is one of the most underrated methods to help reduce stress and lower your cortisol levels. Physical activity helps to release happy hormones aka endorphins, which makes you feel good and helps to fight stress.

But keep in mind that exercise can also be a form of stress. If you’re under a lot of stress because of work, financial strains, a messy divorce, or problematic in-laws, then supercharging your gym efforts is not the best idea.

In times of extreme stress, it’s best to dial things back and opt for less strenuous exercise forms that don’t add to your stress load. Light stretching, yoga, or an afternoon walk are great options and help to ensure that you don’t overexert yourself or overtrain.

Bring In The Big Guns

While supplements aren't strictly necessary, the right supplements can help you to get out of a rut, which will make it easier to work on your sleep, diet, and exercise.

Because your body metabolizes any supplement or medication within 6-8 hours, it takes a System that syncs with your circadian rhythm OR balances your cortisol 24/7 to experience real change

The Rebalance Systems™ are designed to work with your circadian rhythm. Hence, your cortisol stays in sync with your days and nights – i.e., cortisol levels are low at night and higher in the morning when they should be.

After a restful sleep from taking DREAM, you start your day with a morning lozenge, Step 1 found in our Hot Flash, Anxiety, and Testosterone Systems. This helps your body maintain healthy cortisol levels throughout the day, while giving you the steady energy you need to seize the day head-on. You might be unfazed by the morning commute traffic or less anxious in general about everything.

Taken in the late afternoon, the Step 2 lozenge, exclusively found in our Hot Flash, Anxiety, and Testosterone Systems, continues the cortisol-balancing work the morning lozenges did during the day, keeping you in sync with your circadian rhythm. Whether you want to relax on the couch or hit the gym you can get your play on and take the edge off without losing your trump card. And because you’ve been helping your body bring cortisol levels down as the sun goes down, your body is more prepared for another good night’s sleep when you take your next DREAM lozenge.

However you shake it, keeping cortisol inline brings global benefits to your body. Because cortisol plays such a central role in how other hormones operate, how you treat it (or don’t treat it) can have long-reaching implications for your health.

Why Does Cortisol Cause Weight Gain?

Cortisol works as a double-edged sword when it comes to weight. On one hand, it helps regulate the release of insulin, the hormone responsible for managing blood sugar levels.

But when cortisol sticks around too long in high amounts, it can lead to blood sugar spikes, which causes cravings for unhealthy foods and may also increase your appetite. This perfect storm can cause unwanted weight gain and an array of health issues. In fact, studies have shown that high cortisol, insulin, and chronic stress predict higher levels of weight gain.

This may be because people, specifically women, who are highly responsive to cortisol, eat more when they’re stressed.

High cortisol levels can also prompt your body to hold on to fat, particularly around your waist. Yes, it’s hard to believe that this hormone that’s supposed to be in our corner can work so hard against us. They weren’t joking when they said life is unfair.

Cortisol and Covid-What is the Link?

Have you wondered why certain people had more severe COVID-19 symptoms than others? Or why some people experienced Long Covid while others didn’t? While this area of medicine still needs more studies, preliminary studies have found that patients with higher serum cortisol levels had more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

They also had higher fatality rates compared to patients who had lower cortisol levels and lower levels of depression and anxiety. This may be because stress compromises your immune system and makes it harder for your body to fight off infections.


Cortisol is a vital hormone that plays a crucial role in our overall health and well-being. While it’s commonly known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol also helps regulate various bodily functions. Maintaining healthy cortisol levels is essential for optimal health. By understanding the causes of high cortisol levels and how to balance your cortisol levels, you can improve your health, sex drive, sleep, and begin to live limitlessly.