How Do You Know You Have High Cortisol? (and what to do about it)

Published October 3, 2017

High cortisol may be the untold reason why…

High cortisol may be the untold reason why you’re not losing your stubborn belly fat. If you feel like you’ve been doing everything right, but nothing seems to make that bulge go away, read on, because eating only salads and running on the treadmill every day will not necessarily get you a flat stomach.

Why is that so?

Possibly there might be a few other things going on that you don’t think have anything to do with your muffin top, but in fact they can have more of an impact on your waistline than you think.

Think about the following: Is there a lot on your plate at the moment? Think about family commitments, studies or your relationship? Or you are constantly under the pump at work? Then, perhaps you have found your number one enemy that causes high cortisol.


Stress is inevitable. We can all get strained from time to time, but many of us are unaware of how this negatively impact our health, our hormones and our waistline. You might think, stress is just a feeling; surely it has nothing to do with my body?

Couldn’t be more wrong.

Long-term stress is a dangerous state, that influences the production of cortisol, the hormone, which can be the culprit of your health problems. If you want to lose your stubborn fat, especially from around your belly, you might need to look into strategies to lowering your high cortisol levels, which can be a leading cause for the accumulated fat around the midsection area. Before we jump the gun, let’s have a look at the hormone, cortisol, and how high cortisol can affect our bodies.


How Do You Know You Have High Cortisol? (and what to do about it)


1. What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones, produced and released by our adrenal glands in response to fear, stress, and anxiety. As it is a glucocorticoid (raises your glucose levels) it also has a role in controlling blood sugars and insulin levels. This is why it can cause you to put on excess body fat. Although some cortisol production is normal and it is needed, when the stress is chronic and ongoing, that is when the negative aspects of cortisol lurk out.

Let me explain why:

What happens when you constantly eat sugary foods? You get a sudden burst of energy, which lasts about 30 minutes before you end up crashing, and feeling fatigued. This is due to the sudden spike of sugar in your blood, which results in the production of insulin. Eventually, if this spike happens over and over again your cells may stop responding to the insulin signals, and you can become insulin resistant, and gain weight.

The same thing can happen with high cortisol. The more ongoing stress you experience; the more cortisol is released. Eventually, your body can interpret this as an unsafe environment, and in response, start accumulating body fat around our midsection to keep you ‘safe’. It is suggested that the reason why your body has this protective mechanism is because historically humans only experienced chronically elevated cortisol levels during times of war and famine, when food was scarce. In order to protect you from starving to death, the human body is smart enough to store extra body fat around the vital organs.


Balance Is key: Dangers of Low and High Cortisol

Balanced cortisol levels are essential for our health and weight management. By not being able to manage stress, our cortisol levels are never balanced. Therefore, a hormonal imbalance – low or  high cortisol – can contribute to a dizzying array of health conditions.


2. What are the Dangers of High Cortisol?

Now that we know the role of cortisol, and how it is linked to stress, let’s take a look at how it affects our weight. In an ideal world, cortisol only becomes elevated  post-exercise to help reduce inflammation or when we are constantly stressed about something. For a lot of women this constant stress might be triggered by a stressful work environment, unhappy relationship or something as or simple as their dissatisfaction with their weight.  The problem is that when the cortisol ‘alarm’ doesn’t turn off, it can leave you with high cortisol levels that wear out your adrenals.


How Do You Know You Have High Cortisol? (and what to do about it)

  • Adrenal Fatigue & Weight Gain


If you are living in a fast-paced life, your adrenals are probably in overdrive. Your adrenal glands can become fatigued from constantly pumping out stress hormones, and this can easily lead to a burn out. The first sign of this may be that you start craving salty and sweet foods, your weight starts creeping up, feel tired and fatigued and may struggle to get a good night’s sleep– even if you’re eating healthy and exercising. If these symptoms sound familiar you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue? You can read more about it here.

So, what can you do to combat this stress and adrenal fatigue?

There are many strategies to relieve anxiety, and in turn reduce high cortisol levels. Diaphragmatic or deep-belly-breathing is one of the best and easiest ways to ease stress, and you can do it anytime, anywhere. Find out exactly how to do it here.  Diaphragmatic breathing is an excellent way to maximize and improve oxygen flow in your body, therefore boosting your body functions in a multitude of ways. This method of breathing is used in various practices, such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong. Once you start implementing it daily, it will do wonders for your body and mind!

  • Long-Term Complications of high cortisol


Not only can high cortisol negatively impact your weight, it has also been linked to various illnesses. Chronically high cortisol levels may increase your risk of developing diabetes, brain atrophy, Cushing’s syndrome, skin conditions hypothyroidism, Graver’s disease, depression, and weakened immunity. It can also contribute to the loss of muscle mass, reduced libido, lower bone mineral density, and as you know by now, increased abdominal visceral fat. This is the dangerous kind of fat that is suffocating your internal organs and can lead to cardiovascular disease.  


3. What are the Dangers of Low Cortisol?

We saw how detrimental high cortisol can be on our health. However, on the other end of the spectrum when cortisol is low, things aren’t much better either. If cortisol levels drop to below the normal range, you can start suffering from a range of dangerous symptoms, that can become long-term issues if not treated. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, heart palpitations, muscle weakness, headaches, abdominal pain and much more.

  • Low blood sugar:


As you read above, cortisol has a direct effect on glucose levels in our blood. When cortisol is high, it contributes to the release of a surge of energy, in the form of glucose. This, in turn, spikes insulin in the blood, allowing that energy to enter the cells. Therefore, if our cortisol levels drop significantly, we can start feeling extremely tired, weak and irritable. This is because cortisol’s role in glucose management is slowed down, so our energy levels may decline as a result.

  • Low Blood Pressure:


As we start feeling fatigued and run-down, our blood pressure drops due to the lack of hormones, such as cortisol and aldosterone. This is because the glucocorticoid hormones have a direct role on maintaining water and salt balance in the body, through the kidneys. When the production of these hormones drop, the kidneys are unable to regulate the salt and water balance in the blood, causing the blood volume to drop. When blood volume drops, the body’s blood pressure lowers. Low blood pressure can be dangerous – you may start feeling dizzy and lightheaded if cortisol levels are not restored.

  • Increased Risk of Chronic Disease:


What people often overlook is that low cortisol is just as dangerous as high cortisol. When your cortisol levels are low, your body struggles to regulate inflammation. Due to increased inflammation in your body and a weakened immune system, low cortisol can contribute to an increased risk of cancers, Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia, and so much more.


4. How Do I Check If You Have High Cortisol Levels?

In today’s medical world, doctors often overlook cortisol levels as a potential cause of weight gain. In fact, in my experience, a lot of them refuse to test for it.  Unless you are being tested for Addison’s or Cushing’s syndrome (a rare disease caused by elevated cortisol levels), chances are, your doctor will never think to look twice.

However, it is essential to ensure that your cortisol levels are within the normal range if you struggle with fatigue or belly fat. Ideally, your serum cortisol levels should fall between 10-15 mcg/dL (U.S.), when tested in the morning.

There are various ways to test for high cortisol levels. Hormone labs and clinics can easily test your cortisol levels by analyzing your saliva, blood and urine samples. When it comes to adrenal profile, salivary hormone tests are much more accurate than serum (blood) tests.

It’s best to consult a health care practitioner to determine, which testing method is most appropriate for you. With modern technology, you can easily test yourself at home, using a diurnal cortisol panel, which is a salivary method that is read 4 times throughout the day. Normally, our cortisol peaks in the morning and drops by the evening. However, this varies depending on individuality, and a wide range of factors. Therefore, the home test at frequent points during the day is more accurate than a single blood test at a doctor’s clinic.

Once you receive your reading, it is time for your health practitioner to analyse it, and based on the results start resetting your cortisol levels, in order to balance your hormones. It is also essential to monitor your cortisol levels throughout your treatment, to ensure that whatever you’re doing is working.



Cortisol can be a tricky little hormone; both high and low levels can cause issues. High cortisol is often the leading cause for excess fat accumulating in the midsection. The key to balancing cortisol is aiming to achieve a healthy balanced lifestyle, and managing day-to-day stress effectively.

If you are struggling with low energy and losing weight, particularly around your waistline, it is worth considering getting your cortisol levels checked to ensure that everything is in balance.

To start rebalancing them naturally try these 7 strategies. 


How Do You Know You Have High Cortisol

Nik Toth