Help! What To Do About High Cortisol Levels

Help! What To Do About High Cortisol

The body’s reaction to stress is called the “stress response”. Without this finely tuned process, we would not be able to get through a day. However, our modern-day high-tech, fast-paced lifestyles have elevated stress to epidemic levels.

Our lives have become littered with psychological, physical, nutritional and environmental stressors, which in turn assault our body with chronic levels of stress hormones. Initially, there is some ebb and flow, but eventually, when stress becomes chronic, stress hormones are continually produced and released into the bloodstream.

  • Do you wake up in the middle of the night or too early but you can’t fall back to sleep?
  • Do you get light headed upon standing and need caffeine to keep you awake?
  • Do you feel “wired” yet “tired” at the same time?
  • Do you crave carbs and possibly eat more than 50% of your calories after 5pm?
  • Do you suffer from depression, anxiety, nervousness, irritability, weight gain, increased sugar cravings, increased blood pressure, and abnormal blood lipids?
  • Do you have difficulty recovering from exercise, easily get musculoskeletal injuries and seem to get sick often?

If this describes some or all of your symptoms, you are likely experiencing the effects of stress and subsequent high cortisol levels.

Chronic stress and the resulting negative health issues is becoming a nationwide epidemic.

Stress can result from psychological, physiological and/or physical reasons.  When under stress, the body responds by increasing cortisol output from the adrenal glands.  Normal cortisol levels are not detrimental. In fact, cortisol is both beneficial and protective in controlling blood pressure, blood sugar levels, inflammation as well as strengthening cardiac muscle.  A normal cortisol rhythm should peak in the morning hours and then steadily decline through the day with the lowest levels at night. When the body experiences chronic stress, over time these levels increase above optimal range.

An acute rise in cortisol is not a bad thing, as it is the natural adrenal response to stress, like when you get a common cold, or experience an isolated stressful event or during exercise. However, when stress becomes unresolved or chronic, cortisol is continuously elevated and the body enters what is known as the adrenal resistance phase.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels are both inflammatory and catabolic and cause a myriad of disorders including: thyroid and metabolic dysfunction, cognitive decline, low serotonin levels resulting in depression, irritability, anxiety, carb cravings, immune suppression, altered glucose metabolism, elevated lipid levels, increased blood pressure, low melatonin levels resulting in altered sleep patterns, musculoskeletal issues resulting in difficulty recovering from exercise and possible subsequent injuries.  Cortisol levels are also related to mental acuity and can factor into degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

DHEA, a precursor to sex hormones or more easily remembered as the “fountain of youth” hormone, also relates to adrenal function and unfortunately can have an inverse relationship to cortisol.  Thus, if you have chronically elevated cortisol you may have proportionately low DHEA resulting in further metabolic disturbances including weight gain, poor immune function and hormonal imbalances.

Stress itself is unavoidable, yet you can take steps to manage your cortisol levels and limit metabolic disturbances. Whether your personal goals are weight reduction, improved health or sports performance, you hold the power to make changes to achieve your goals.

What To Do About High Cortisol Levels

The following nutrition, exercise and lifestyle recommendations can help you lower your cortisol to optimal levels. 

What To Do About High Cortisol |


A general rule in good nutrition is to focus on REAL food. Limit or avoid packaged, processed and non-organic foods. Additives, preservatives, GMOs, dyes, food colorings, hormones, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics increase the toxic load to the liver and cause added stress to the body.

Cortisol causes gluconeogenesis, the production of sugar from non-carb sources. Thus, elevated cortisol increases your blood sugar levels.  Eating a diet heavy in starchy processed carbohydrates and sugar further exacerbates elevated blood sugar leading to increased fat around the waist line as well as weight gain.

I recommend that those with elevated cortisol levels avoid sugar and reduce starchy carbohydrates.

  • Non-starchy vegetables, specifically those in the cruciferous family, due to their detoxifying ability, should be consumed three times as much as fruits and ideally be included at each meal.
  • Protein, an integral macronutrient for healing, should be included at every meal to help with stabilizing blood sugar and improving immune function.  Aim for organic proteins to limit hormones, antibiotics and inflammatory fats that are often found in non-organic meats.
  • Fats, more specifically omega-3 fatty acids, are anti-inflammatory and help counter the inflammatory effects of cortisol. Take omega 3 fish oils rich in EPA and DHA, and incorporate omega-3 rich foods like salmon and chia seeds into your daily diet.
  • Water, appropriately labeled “the liquid of life”, is encouraged for those with elevated cortisol levels as it will help hydrate cells and detoxify the body. Limiting caffeine, as it is an adrenal stressor, is strongly recommended.
  • Foundational supplements for optimal health include a good quality multi-vitamin, omega-3 fish oils and probiotics. Consult with a qualified practitioner for recommended supplementation to both support and restore adrenal function as well as decrease elevated cortisol.


While exercise is recommended as one of the best forms of medicine, too much exercise at the wrong intensity level can be more inflammatory and further exacerbate cortisol levels in those that have already elevated values.

It is best to exercise when your cortisol is closest to normal range.

  • Cortisol levels peaks about 40 minutes into exercise, therefore recommendations would be to limit cardiovascular activity to less than 40 minutes in duration and limit frequency to 2-3 times per week.
  • As for resistance training, not only does frequency need to be reduced but so does intensity. I also recommend to increase rest times between sets and decrease both sets and rep range. Don’t forget to include protein and l-glutamine post workout to aid with recovery, repair and resilience.
  • Lastly implement recovery based exercise, such as walking, yoga, Pilates and stretching as these exercises help to regulate optimal cortisol output.


Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to reducing cortisol and restoring the adrenal glands. Work towards 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep between 10pm and 6am.  Turn off all artificial light. That means put the iPad, Kindle, laptop, iPhone and any other electronic devices away. No television either.

Artificial light tricks the body into releasing more cortisol, suppresses melatonin, making it difficult to sleep.

  • Look to prayer, meditation, deep breathing and restorative type exercise such as yoga, Pilates and stretching to manage stress.
  • Dry sauna several times a week has also shown to not only reduce toxins but decrease stress as well.
  • Lastly massage has also shown to directly decrease cortisol while subsequently increasing serotonin and dopamine.

Know Your Cortisol Values

If you suspect you have chronically elevated cortisol levels, it is important to not only get your values tested via a 4-point salivary cortisol test, but to also consult with a qualified practitioner to ensure success on your healing journey.

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  1. Amy says

    This is great information – thanks! My doctor recently told me that I’m at stage 2/3 of adrenal fatigue/exhaustion and I’m trying to get things back on track. It’s definitely frustrating to say the least!

  2. ladonna says

    Really great information. I recently found out I have extremely high cortisol levels.
    I am doing my 4th test this week. With all the test the past couple of months I now have the high cortisol, hypothyrioidism, cushings disease and metabolic syndrome.Interesting how all of these work together and answer many of the health questions I have had. Knowledge is good.
    I continue to search information and put all of this together to understand better my results and now hopefully solutions.

  3. Stef says

    is it dangerous to have hypothyroidism and high cortisol? i am soooo much scared. i have hypothyroidism and i am on medication. i take 0.05MG of levothyroxine.

  4. jen westcott says

    thanks for the great article! I was diagnosed w/Hashimoto’s in August. I was taking a small dose of armour, but it made me feel worse. I have ALL of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, but my 24 hr saliva test came back within the normal range :(

    I am pretty discouraged. my doctor is treating me with a small amount of cortef 3x’s a day (along with a sleep aid supplement and dopamine/GABA/seratonin booster) just to see. any ideas? it’s a hard to differentiate between high/low cortisol. are there conditions that mimic AF perfectly? I’m telling you, I could be an AF poster child!

    any help would be GREaTLY appreciated.

  5. Rhondaq says

    It really upsets me that each and ever article on this subjects states how important it is to get enough sleep.. Well WE WOULD IF WE COULD SLEEP. Sleep is the #1 issue with you have low or high cortisol.. I really hate these articles on the subject because there never is much thought into them. they are just basics and one person copies the other person blog on this…

  6. says

    I am reading your posts and completely feel your frustrations. I myself was suffering from many symptoms as well as severe weakness that led me to bedrest. My endocrinologist did not help me, saying that my TSH levels were on the higher side to normal, even though I was having many thyroid symptoms, as well as adrenal symptoms, and put on 25lbs in 1 year, I felt helpless and alone, until I went to a naturapath who concluded that I had severe adrenal fatigue, and finally someone validating my poor health. He put me on cortef, as well as many other supplements to help the adrenals as well as getting my thyroid to normal levels. He also incorporated a low carbohydrate diet and included more protein. This helped slowly improve my strength, clarity of mind, and energy, with improved sleep patterns. He also told me to do strength exercises and then work up to 30 minutes a day when I was able. Ladies and gentlemen, after two years I am just now able to work out 30-40 minutes a day without being completely exhausted! It now has been 2yrs into recovery and I feel I am two thirds better. This has been a slow recovery, but I am glad I am recovering from a very scary and frustrating experience that many do not understand!!! Thank-you to naturapaths., and my advice is to be patient and stick to the reccamendations given. I believe you!!!!

  7. says

    You mentioned L-Glutamine post workout. I take mine at dinner time because I’ve been taking it to heal my intestines (gluten and dairy intolerant). Should I take it right after I work out instead? I’m finally getting to the point that I can exercise and I just started last week. It’s been a couple of years since I was able to exercise without being completely wiped out for a couple of days. Are there any good, natural protein powders to use? The ones in our supermarket are loaded with a bunch of junk, even though they’re sold in the natural food section. This is a great post. Thanks!

  8. Pat says

    I have experienced disturbed sleeping patterns which includes waking at 4am every morning and not being able to resume sleep for the last three years now. After countless visits to various doctors who prescribed various sleeping tablets and anxiety tabs that did not help I finally met a naturapath who requsted me to get saliva test to check my cortisol levels. The results showed that I have an extremely high level of cortisol in the morning with marginally higher levels of cortisol throughout the day and evening. I tried using various different supplements including GABA, compounded meletonin and magnesium, fish oils without any success. I also changed my diet to reduce saturated fats and undertaken meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques. The naturapath also asked me to perform vigourous cardivasular excercise first thing in the morning to reduce the cortisol level. I have tried this for several months with no significant changes to my sleeping pattern. Your article mentions that vigorous execercise should be avoided or performed during the periods of normal cortisol levels. Is it advisable to disregard my naturapaths recommendation and cease excercise in the morning? Also do you have any other advise to help me overcome this problem? Any advice would be great.

  9. Dean says

    I too am suffering from extremely high cortisol levels. Sleeping too much is my problem and I don’t wake refreshed. After about three hours I have to take a two hour nap because of exhaustion. Can’t think, work or be useful in my life. I am thin and “healthy” except for the cortisol…can you help?

    • ross says

      Dean, I too am healthy except for the cortisol levels. I was quite athletic being able to cycle or four or five hours up and down hills. Now, if I do that my heart rate stays elevated for hours and sleep is not possible. I am desperate to have this problem solved. Any improvement for you. I am interested in speaking to others in the same boat that I find myself in.

  10. Melanie says

    I just left the endo with my 17 yr. old daughter. She has many hypo symptoms, but he refused to treat her. Her Cortisol is 21.1, Free T4 is 1.1, TSH 3.03. He refused to do a Free T3 because she is 5’10 and he said that only affects short people?! I have hypo, as does my mom and sister. My grandmother had her thyroid removed. At 35 I suffered a heart attack and 3 years prior had a blood clot in my chest that was caught just before reaching the lungs (during 3rd tri of 2nd pregnancy). I eat well and exercise regularly. I am 5’9 and weighed 140 when I had heart attack with really good cholesterol. My brother just had a heart attack 2 years ago at 46. He’s 6’1 and weighs 145. Very active, excellent eater… No one can figure why we had heart attacks and I’m convinced it’s thyroid! I’m terrified for my children. My daughter has shown signs of hypo since she was very young and no one will take me seriously.
    Do you have any suggestions? I’m so desperate.

    • Karen says

      For Melanie, Also have your Magnesium levels checked. Magnesium “red blood cell” NOT serum. Level should be 6.0 or greater. Low levels are a root cause of so many conditions I cannot name them all, but are connected to Thyroid! drcarolyndean dot com, got mag dot com, Magnesium deficiency and HPA axis dysregulation. etc. Also, if possible, have doctor check as many vit/min levels as possible to see where you are. “Could it be B12″ book will list tests for this one vitamin. We have become so deficient in everything due to diet and non-exercise that it affects our immune and hormone systems. They are all interrelated. I’m still trying to weed through it all to make sure I get the right amount of everything daily. Another endo that has a book on adrenals and the like is Dr Schwartzbein (Principle). She has suggestions for diet, sleep, exercise, etc. It is a long process, no quick fixes.

  11. says

    Thanks for clarifying some things. I’ve been presenting with a wide variety of symptoms that I thought were completely unrelated. Ultimately, a seizure caused by low blood sugar prompted me to see the physician. She later told me that every comment I made starting with, “I’m sure this is nothing but…”raised red flags for her. By the end of my visit she realized I had every symptom of high cortisol. Tests done this week confirmed it and I’ll be referred to a specialist. Although I am concerned and really don’t understand what’s happening there is an element of peace knowing all of this is not “in my head”. It’s become a real struggle to work and maintain a home, but thank goodness now that we’re getting some answers people are much more understanding. I know not what the future holds, but I’m feeling very optimistic and have stopped beating myself up.

  12. thomas says

    My 24 hour urine cortisol is 284, I workout 2 times a day,I make everything from scratch(food) , small itsy bitsy meals like 5 x a day(protein source and vegatables only .)No matter what I do the cortisol levels are highand my weight will not drop. I have had testing done over 9 months .A pituatary tumor has been ruled out , what do I do next??

  13. Lisa Boyd says

    My blood serum cortisol – fasting – is pretty high. But last week I just did the Genova Diagnostics Adrenal Stress Profile – saliva – and I hit the box ( in range) for the x4 times saliva collection. So which should you trust? Confused! Oh and DHEAs was super low! Arghhh so frustrating – saliva, blood, blood, saliva???? What’s it to be?

  14. kathy says

    Hi my AM cortisol labwork came back at 31.3. the PA tells me it’s “healthy”..i asked for this test because of symptoms that pointed to elevated cortisol levels. 31.1 falls way outside the range — upper end is 19.4. how can this be a “healthy” number?

  15. NicoleS says

    I have hypothyroidism. It has been basically under control for 11 years. I have gained 65lbs in two years, 5’6″ and went from 140 to 205 and still gaining, my symptoms point to cortisol, but tests show nothing. I have a tumor on my pituitary gland that produces excess prolactin but I have had that for 6 years. Any ideas? I have been to a dietician, naturopath, acupuncture, bio analysis, doctor, no one can figure out the weight issues.
    Diet is great and exercise is fine.

  16. ross says

    I live in Toronto. I also visit Los Angeles frequently. I am aging rapidly. I can’t sleep without pills. This is all new. About two years ago the problems started. Or did they? For years before, I use to wake at night sweating and very hot. I ignored it. At the time I was doing extreme cardio exercise and had been doing this for years. I thought I would live forever. Now, I am looking for what is wrong with me. Cushing? How can I find out?

      • ross says

        Vanessa, Every dr. would look for the root cause. That is the problem. No one on earth today knows what the root cause is. I surgeon would suggest surgery. I psychologist would say the problem is something that happened in the past and is affecting me now. A psychiatrist would say I have an imbalance of neurotransmitters. None of these well meaning people have a clue as to what is going on in my body. They all see the world through their own private prism. As we all do. You might remember the cliché, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

        What about you? Or anybody else. If you have had or are having high cortisol levels what did or are you doing about it.

        • says

          I’ve had the same problem with doctors. All had an answer, but all had the same sort of solution: medication. I would like to go to a naturopath, but the only ones in my area are part of health spas and they cost thousands of dollars, which I don’t have. I’ve been self medicating and self diagnosing and self healing now for about a few years. A year ago, I went paleo, which did have some positive results, but the weight was still not coming off at all and I was still having the aches and pains and hormone issues. Just recently, I began the autoimmune protocol to weed out anything that may be throwing my body into a state of inflammation. It’s only been a week and a half and I’ve lost 5 pounds so far, so something’s working. After 8 weeks on the AIP, I’m going to reintroduce food slowly and see how that works. I did read The Hormone Cure book and that helped me with supplements to take. I’ve been experimenting with them as well. We’ll see how it all works out….

          • ross says

            Good for you Heather. What were the symptoms that were most annoying to do. You mentioned the weight issue.
            My problem is sleep or rather than I have difficulty staying asleep. And there is a lot of agitation that prevents me from being able to relax and smell the roses on this journey called life.
            I suspect some hormones are not working right, but which ones and what am I to do about it.

          • says

            My symptoms were weight gain and inability to lose it, wired but tired and not sleeping well (feeling exhausted but waking up not too long after I go to sleep and then not being able to get back to sleep) and it’s worse around my time of the month. I love to exercise, but I was having a really hard time recovering after working out, even if it was something simple like walking. Before I went gluten free, I used to crave carbs like nobody’s business, but that subsided when I stopped gluten. I suspect my issues go way deeper than just cortisol issues – like leaky gut/adrenal fatigue, which is why it’s been so hard to conquer. Healing my gut has been helping immensely. Going gluten free took away a lot of the pain I was having, but then after 6 months, I started having all over body pain and extreme fatigue again, so that’s why I went paleo. I was still wrestling with fatigue and some pain issues, so that’s why I started the autoimmune protocol. I think the cortisol issues are just another symptom of a more complex problem. Oh, yeah, and I’m 45, which puts me in that change of life era, so it makes sense that my hormones will be off. I got the Hormone Cure book to guide me on some supplements to takefor hormone/cortisol issues. I’m taking L-Glutamine to help heal my intestines, plus lots of probiotics (probiotic vitamin plus water kefir plus kombucha plus fermented veggies), krill oil. I’m taking some other supplements, but I’m still playing around with what works well for me, to see what evens out the hormones.

          • ross says

            It’s a trial and error process. I feel for your situation as it mirrors my life. I am doing the same thing. Trying to figure out what to do. So far, nothing works except for a day or two.

  17. Pat says

    Thanks Vanessa,

    I thought I would update on my particular issue with high cortisol levels starting in the early morning (3am) that has caused me to wake and have difficulty falling sleep again. I met with my GP would asked me to take a sleep apnea test. As a result of the test I was diagnosed with sleep apnea however this did not resolve my waking issue. The GP then prescribed me quick release compounded meletonin which I take when I wake at night. The meleton reduces my cortisol levels when I wake up and I can get back to sleep which is great. I think the combination of compounded meletonin and a CPAP machine for sleep apnea has worked well. Now all I need to do is reduce my stress levels throughout the day so I dont have ongoing elevated cortisol levels.

  18. connie says

    turn in my test tomorrow for the 24 hour urine to check cortisol levels, and a fasting blood, doctor mentioned if it was high, an adrenal gland could be removed because it was not functioning???

  19. J Manley says

    I had elevated cortisol levels in recent 24 hr urine test and my endocrinologist ordered a saliva test to confirm. I am awaiting those results but I also saw an integrative medicine physician who ordered NO CARDIO. His definition of cardio was anything that doubled my resting heart rate. I see in your article above you recommend cardio to be less than 30 minutes, 2-3 times per week. I have been following his advice but REALLY miss the cardio workouts. I have been walking on an incline 15 % at 4mph maintaining my heart rate below 120 bpm. In your opinion, does incline walking count as cardio or recovery exercise? I am grateful for any insight you may have!

  20. Chris says

    Always good to read. I was recently diagnosed with high cortisol thru 4 pt saliva. I am a 48 year old man who is a powerlifter and bodybuilder. I’ve struggled with chronic anxiety and depression for years. My doctor is part of an integrated md, natural practice. My strength training is very intense and because this type of exercise is what I love I probably won’t change. But I’m practicing all of your other recommendations. Best to all

  21. Jim says

    At 62 and finally getting back into shape and feeling great with weight loss and excellent muscle gain only to wake up one day totally exhausted. One week later and I am still exhausted. As a result of research on sights like this I have come to the conclusion I have increased Cortisol as a result of working out too much and not consuming enough calories. and I thought I was doing the right thing, I felt so great the first month!. Now I am exhausted from the moment I wake up to the moment I go back to bed.

    All I can say is DAM IT!!! Just when things were looking up they start to decline as a result of trying to do the right thing by eating the right healthy foods, and exercising 4 times a week. You are damned wen you don’t then damned when you do.

    I suppose it is just the nature of the beast, we are not perfect creatures, life was not meant to be without issues so we deal with the hand that has been dealt to us as well as we can. Hopefully we will be able to work through our issues by finding out what works for us, what works for me might not work for you.
    I will continue my quest to fix this problem, this article and form has been very enlightening, thanks for your expertise and those of you who have shared your stories.

    Lets kick this beast!


  1. […] Chronically elevated cortisol levels are both inflammatory and catabolic and cause a myriad of disorders including: thyroid and metabolic dysfunction, cognitive decline, low serotonin levels resulting in depression, irritability, anxiety, carb cravings, immune suppression, altered glucose metabolism, elevated lipid levels, increased blood pressure, low melatonin levels resulting in altered sleep patterns, musculoskeletal issues resulting in difficulty recovering from exercise and possible subsequent injuries.  Cortisol levels are also related to mental acuity and can factor into degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. – Vanessa Romero from Healthy Living How To […]

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