September 1, 2022

Cortisol Blood Test - What You Should to Know

Key Takeaways

  • Cortisol is a steroid hormone from the steroid family called glucocorticoids. It’s best known as the stress hormone because of the role it plays in your body’s response to stress.
  • Cortisol also regulates blood sugar and metabolism, reduces inflammation, controls blood pressure, helps control sleep-wake cycles, and assists in long-term memory formation. 
  • A cortisol blood test measures the amount of cortisol hormone in the bloodstream. 
  • You can lower cortisol levels with regular exercise, healthy eating, getting plenty of rest, and reducing unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking.

Did you know sneezing and coughing is your body’s way of clearing foreign material? Or that yawning is meant to regulate your brain’s temperature? Even brain freezes are a useful way to tell you to slow down with whatever you’re consuming.

The fact of the matter is, your body has a ton of interesting natural responses meant to keep you safe from danger. One of the most obvious responses that you're likely familiar with (for better or worse) is your body’s stress response.

Your body’s stress response is meant to keep you safe by alerting you to both real and emotional threats. Powering this response is an important hormone called cortisol, which plays a vital role throughout your body.

Besides stress, cortisol also regulates several important bodily functions. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about cortisol, the role it plays in your body, and why you would need a cortisol blood test.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone from the steroid family called glucocorticoids. It’s best known as the stress hormone because of the role it plays in your body’s response to stress, but it serves an even bigger role in your body. In fact, most cells in your body have cortisol receptors.

Cortisol is created in the adrenal glands, which are two small glands located on the top of the kidneys. In addition to a stress response, cortisol also has uses in a variety of functions in your body, including:

  • Regulating blood sugar and metabolism
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Controlling blood pressure
  • Assisting in long-term memory formation
  • Helping control sleep-wake cycles
  • Regulating your body’s stress response

When your body identifies a perceived threat, your brain releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which triggers the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol. This is part of your body’s stress response, which means your heart rate and blood pressure increases, and nonessential body functions like digestion and the reproductive system are suppressed. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels, including cortisol levels, are supposed to return to normal.

However, if stressors are always present and your body feels constantly under attack, this complex natural alarm system will stay active and alert. This can seriously affect your body and overall health.

Symptoms of high cortisol levels

Because cortisol plays an important role throughout your body, the symptoms of elevated cortisol levels can vary depending on what’s causing the increase in your levels.

Common symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Weight gain - especially in the face, midsection, or upper back
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating or trouble with memorization
  • Flushed face
  • Easy bruising
  • Acne
  • Severe fatigue
  • Injuries heal slowly
  • Irritability

Your body does an excellent job of monitoring and maintaining homeostasis, or steady cortisol levels. However, if your levels are high-than-normal or lower-than-normal, it can be seriously harmful to your health and potentially be a sign of conditions like Addison disease or Cushing’s syndrome.

Why you would need a cortisol blood test

A cortisol blood test measures the amount of cortisol hormone in your bloodstream and can help identify and diagnose any medical conditions that cause too little or too much cortisol in your body. A few medical conditions that can be diagnosed with a cortisol blood test include:

Addison disease

This is a condition where your adrenal glands are damaged and do not produce enough cortisol. Symptoms of Addison disease include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue that progressively gets worse
  • Muscle weakness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Patchy or dark skin
  • Loss of appetite

Addison disease can be fatal if not treated, so it’s important to get tested so you can identify if you have the disease and start treatment. Treatment for Addison disease is hormone pills that you will need to take for the rest of your life.

Cushing’s syndrome

This is a disorder that occurs when your body has too much cortisol over a long period of time. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Weight gain
  • Slower healing to injuries
  • Thinning skin
  • Fatty deposits in the face, midsection, or between the shoulders
  • The formation of purple stretch marks
  • Easy bruising

The development of elevated cortisol levels can be attributed to several factors, including stress, pituitary gland issues, adrenal gland tumors, or side effects from certain medications. In women, estrogen can also increase cortisol levels, especially if you are pregnant or going through estrogen therapy.

It’s also important to note that elevated or lower levels of cortisol aren’t always associated with a medical condition that requires treatment. Cortisol levels can be affected by a variety of factors, like:

  • Pregnancy
  • Stress
  • Exercise
  • Serious illness
  • Obesity
  • Hot and cold temperatures
  • Certain medications
  • Thyroid disease

If your levels are out of the normal range and there is no underlying medical condition, then lowering your stress levels can help.

How to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress

Stress is a normal part of life. You’ll never be able to avoid stressful situations, but you can take steps to better manage stressful events.

One step is to identify what triggers your stress and develop a plan to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. A few stress management strategies include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Trying new hobbies or revisiting old ones
  • Spending time with family and close friends
  • Seeking help from a therapist or counselor who can help develop specific coping strategies to manage stress
  • Get back to nature: studies show that being in nature lowers cortisol levels and decreases your heart rate
  • Find ways to laugh more, like visiting a comedy club or watching a funny movie. Laughter can be the best medicine to relieve stress

Healthy coping strategies to reduce stress are important, but so is avoiding unhealthy habits. Drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, drugs, or binge eating can make your stressful levels worse and negatively impact your overall health. If you’re concerned that these unhealthy habits are increasing due to stress, it’s best to speak with your doctor.

How to test cortisol levels at home

Everyone experiences high cortisol levels from time to time. After all, it’s just your body’s natural way of protecting you from danger. However, elevated or lower-than-normal cortisol levels over an extended period of time can be detrimental to your health.

That’s why it’s important, if you have symptoms of high or low levels of cortisol, to receive accurate test results to determine what your cortisol levels are. Home cortisol tests are available, and the most convenient and safe option is through a mobile phlebotomy service like Getlabs.

Getlabs takes the stress out of blood tests by coming directly to your home. If your doctor recommends a blood cortisol test, Getlabs will send an experienced mobile phlebotomist to draw a blood sample and deliver it to a nearby laboratory for testing.

To learn more, visit Getlabs FAQ to find answers to any questions you may have. To schedule an appointment, simply follow the link below. We look forward to seeing you.

Book an Appointment

Getlabs delivers healthcare to you. Our specialists come to you to collect your labs and deliver them to Labcorp and Quest for testing. We’re available same-day, nationwide.

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