Stress & Metabolism: CORTISOL TESTING

Stress & Metabolism:  CORTISOL TESTING

Author: Christine Howell, Naturopath, Geelong 21st April 2016


Feeling tired? Stressed? Can’t stop gaining weight, or losing hair? Being driven mad by fluid problems or your bodies temperature changes in the weather? No, it’s not just your Thyroid that may be the issue here. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone responsible for regulating the immune response and acts an anti inflammatory. It also plays a role in protein, carbohydrate and fat metabolism. It is made primarily from cholesterol and is produced  in the adrenal glands which sit above your kidneys.

During prolonged stress, cortisol is released in large amounts into the body by your adrenal glands Levels of this hormone fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest levels present early in the morning and the lowest levels detected around midnight. When these levels are maintained adequately the body is able to exhibit a regular sleep cycle at night and healthy energy regulation in the day.

So, how do we define stress? Anything your body doesn’t like or requires abnormal functions like poor nutrition, over working, lack of sleep, poor thyroid function… We live such busy lives that it is now considered ‘normal’ to be stressed, and society may even look down on those who feel affected in such a way.



stress post its


Why test for Cortisol levels?

High or low cortisol levels have been associated with psychological stress, depression, illness, fever, hypoglycaemia and extremes of temperature. Production of the hormone is regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain. Adults tend to have slightly higher levels than children do.

Saliva cortisol testing evaluates free cortisol and is collected at various times throughout the day. This measurement is then used to evaluate both cortisol levels and diurnal (daily and cyclical) variations.


High cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, immune suppression, thyroid dysfunction, ageing, high blood pressure, muscle weakness and severe mood swings that can manifest as anxiety or depression. Elevated cortisol over the long term leads to increased blood sugar levels. Cortisol has the ability to mobilize triglycerides from storage and move them to visceral fat cells. So its effects have a significant impact on weight gain.


Low cortisol levels however, are more prone to people experiencing problems such as dizziness, fatigue, weight loss, darkened areas of skin, menstrual problems, chronic fatigue, allergies and arthritis. Having an under active thyroid (Hypothyroidism) can lead to lower than normal cortisol levels.


Ongoing chronic stress tends to elevate cortisol levels initially, but then the body becomes unable to produce continual high amounts.


chia seeds heart

Then a decline in cortisol is noted and diurnal cortisol rhythm progresses to late evening spikes resulting in insomnia. When a person is at this stage we see a typical ‘burn out’, as the hormone production becomes unstable, most common following long periods of stress. As the body fails to produce adequate amounts of cortisol, symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia and general lack of vitality begin to set in.


Factors that may increase cortisol levels include:

  • Caffeine

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Prolonged physical exercise

  • Burn out or ongoing stress

  • Anorexia nervosa

  • Use of the oral contraceptive pill

There is evidence in that both humans and animals, food timing, meal composition and the length of fasting have a direct correlation to cortisol excretion. Diets that are high in protein are likely to initiate a sustained cortisol increase whilst a diet high in carbohydrates has a negligible effect.


4.BEING-BUSYA recent study by Gibson et al, examined the relationship between cortisol and daily hot flushes in menopausal women. 44 women were tested for salivary cortisol levels and found to have cortisol dysregulation. All participants suffered from frequent and severe hot flushes. So checking your cortisol could be a clue to establishing a cause of some common menopausal symptoms.

Ensuring your cortisol levels are at optimal levels requires getting adequately tested through a functional testing laboratory.  If you are suffering from any of the conditions listed above, it is worthwhile seeing if cortisol is a contributing factor.

Don’t let signs of debilitating health rule your life.  Get your diurnal cortisol levels tested today!!





Dip of Applied Science (Naturopathy), Southern School of Natural Therapies

Christine gained her qualifications as a naturopath over 20 years ago and over this time has developed a love and passion for hormone management. Having specialized in children’s health, mental health issues and hormonal imbalances for a number of years, Christine is aware of the importance of good nutrition and supportive natural medicines to help achieve optimal health. Naturopathy has so much to offer, especially with thyroid conditions that can be vastly improved through better nutrition and using an integrated approach to improve overall well being. Her lifelong dedication has always been about educating people to live healthier and happier lifestyles.SShe has experienced firsthand the importance of good sound advice and knowledge for patients. In her retail consulting experience, so often people of the public are so misguided or mislead with information they have read or what they thought someone had told them: “Focusing on individualized treatment plans, is the key step to unlocking the burden of unwanted/ troublesome symptoms.”



Recommended Reading & References

Gibson CJ, Thurston RC, Matthews KA. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2016 Apr 5. doi: 10.1111/cen.13076.

Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab. 2012;7(5):555-566.

Weinstein R. The Stress Effect. New York: Avery-Penguin Group; 2004.