Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on October 20, 2023. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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When we’re feeling stressed, scared, or anxious, our bodies naturally react. More specifically, the adrenal glands—located at the top of each kidney—flood the body with a glucocorticoid hormone called cortisol. 
Nearly all tissues within our bodies have receptors that receive this hormone, meaning our stress responses are full-body sensations. As a result, you may experience “fight or flight,” which puts your body on high alert to defend itself against danger. 
While cortisol is released by the adrenal glands, it’s the pituitary gland—located in your brain—that regulates your cortisol levels. Higher than normal cortisol levels are often caused by certain medical conditions and medications
Wondering if you could have high cortisol? Read on to learn more about the role cortisol plays in the body, high cortisol levels symptoms, and how an at-home cortisol test can help.
Cortisol—popularly known as the “stress hormone”—plays a key role in your body’s response to stressful situations. Cortisol is produced and secreted by the adrenal cortex and is naturally released in the body every day.
While the hormone adrenaline initially triggers your “fight or flight” response, it’s cortisol that sustains this stress response. That said, cortisol does not only function as your body’s “stress hormone.” It has a variety of different functions throughout the body, which include [1,2]:
Though the body requires healthy cortisol levels to survive and thrive, too much cortisol production over a prolonged period of time—often the result of chronic stress—can harm one’s health. Chronic stress has been linked with depression and other mental health conditions, heart disease, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and more.
It’s common to have a high cortisol level due to stress. Stress often arises due to new, challenging life events—like a new job, a big move, a changing relationship—but long-term or chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes and trigger symptoms. Signs of high cortisol include:
And if you can’t stay asleep at night, it may also be because of ongoing, chronic stress. 
Too much cortisol can also lead to a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome, or hypercortisolism. This condition is most often found in men and women between the ages of 20 and 50 years. 
A variety of factors can cause Cushing’s syndrome, like increased cortisol secretion brought on by a pituitary tumor (which produces the adrenocorticotropic hormone, the hormone responsible for stimulating cortisol secretion). 
Additionally, Cushing’s syndrome can arise from several other types of tumors, including adrenal cortisol tumors and lung, pancreas, thyroid, and thymus tumors. In the former, a tumor can form on one of the adrenal glands, triggering the production of cortisol. While most adrenal tumors are benign, some can lead to adrenal cancer in rare cases. In the latter, these types of tumors are usually malignant. [2,4]
It can also be caused by certain cortisone-related drugs, like prednisone and prednisolone. These types of medications are typically used to treat such autoimmune diseases as chronic asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and sarcoidosis. High doses of these steroids used for long periods of time can result in higher cortisol levels and cause Cushing’s disease. 
If you believe your cortisol levels are elevated, it’s likely that you’re already experiencing some physiological signs of the hormonal imbalance. Within your body, it’s working to increase the availability of glucose to provide your body with the necessary energy to respond to a threat. 
That said, high cortisol levels are also closely related to adrenaline levels, which typically trigger “fight or flight.” As such, the signs of high cortisol levels can also be tied to symptoms related to adrenaline, which can increase your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and flush your body with energy. 
According to Mayo Clinic, high cortisol symptoms associated with excess cortisol levels can include :
You may also experience more body hair growth or have trouble sleeping (since cortisol affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle). Symptoms of high cortisol levels in females can include a decreased sex drive and menstrual cycle irregularities. 
It’s also possible to have extremely low cortisol levels, which can be caused by a dysfunction of the pituitary or adrenal gland. 
This is referred to as Addison’s disease, and the lower cortisol levels associated with this condition can lead to symptoms like :
When it comes to managing high levels of cortisol, it's crucial to be mindful of various lifestyle factors. Some things to consider avoiding in your regular daily routine are as follows :
Dietary changes can also help regulate your cortisol levels. More specifically, you can incorporate:
In general, one of the most effective ways to lower your cortisol levels is to lower your stress level. Here are some stress management tips that could help:
If you’re experiencing symptoms of high cortisol levels, symptoms of low cortisol levels, or anything else that may indicate a cortisol imbalance, consider taking a cortisol test to gain a clearer picture of your health.
For females, the Everlywell at-home Women’s Health Test is a great place to start. With just a simple finger prick sample collection, you can test your cortisol levels, as well as levels of 10 other biomarkers, including estradiol, progesterone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and more.
Once you confirm what’s causing your symptoms, you can start taking meaningful steps toward feeling your best.