Cortisol is a hormone that is naturally produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. It is also known as the "stress hormone" because its levels increase in response to physical or emotional stress. Cortisol is important for the body's stress response, but it also has many other functions, including regulating blood sugar levels, controlling blood pressure, and reducing inflammation.
Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest levels occurring in the morning and the lowest levels in the evening. However, cortisol levels also vary depending on the individual's sleep-wake cycle, diet, and level of physical activity.
In the afternoon, cortisol levels are typically lower than in the morning, but they can still play an important role in the body's stress response. Afternoon cortisol levels can affect energy levels, mood, and overall health.
Afternoon cortisol levels can also affect mood and emotional regulation. High levels of cortisol in the afternoon have been associated with increased feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, low levels of cortisol in the afternoon have been linked to fatigue and low energy levels.
Afternoon cortisol levels may also be affected by diet and physical activity. Studies have shown that a diet high in sugar and processed foods can lead to increased cortisol levels in the afternoon, while a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help regulate cortisol levels.
Regular physical activity has also been shown to help regulate cortisol levels. Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the afternoon and improve overall health and well-being.
In conclusion, afternoon cortisol levels play an important role in the body's stress response, sleep quality, mood, and overall health. While cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, individuals can take steps to regulate their cortisol levels through diet and exercise. If you are experiencing persistent fatigue, stress, or other symptoms, it may be helpful to talk to a healthcare provider to determine if cortisol levels are a contributing factor.
A low level of cortisol may indicate Addison’s disease, a disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient steroid hormones.
- Weight loss
- Low blood pressure
- Abdominal pain
- Dark patches of skin
You may also have hypopituitarism, which occurs when cortisol production by the adrenal glands is low because the pituitary gland is not sending proper signals.
Possible reasons associated with low cortisol throughout the day:
- Addison’s disease (where the adrenal glands are not responding to the ACTH released by the pituitary gland and are not producing enough cortisol) [L]
- Hypothyroidism [L]
- Medications – opioids, corticosteroids, Accutane [L, L, L]
- HPA-axis dysfunction
- Head trauma affecting the HPA axis [L]
Cortisol (3PM-5PM) lower:
- Low levels can reflect underlying HPA axis dysfunction.
- Late afternoon cortisol level is below mean range and suggestive of adrenal insufficiency.
This suggests suboptimal adrenal functioning, and if accompanied by low evening cortisol and low DHEA, suspect adrenal fatigue.
Suggest supplementation with DHEA and standard adrenal support.
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It is really important to look at all four of these markers together (Waking + Morning + Afternoon + Night) and look at the free cortisol pattern throughout your day.
If all four levels are elevated you might have something called Cushing’s syndrome.
Why is too much cortisol a bad thing?
When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
- Cardiovascular Disease. Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood. This is advantageous for fight-or-flight situations but not perpetually. Over time, such arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup—the perfect scenario for a heart attack.
- High glucose levels. Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
- Weight gain. As your cells are crying out for energy, your body may send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and thus gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.
- Suppressed immune system. Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually suppress your immune system. You could be more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you may develop food allergies.
- Digestive problems. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. It’s no coincidence that ulcers occur during stressful times and people with colitis or irritable bowel syndrome report better symptom control when they get their stress under control.
- Fertility problems. Elevated cortisol relating to prolonged stress can lend itself to erectile dysfunction or the disruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles. Furthermore, the androgenic sex hormones are produced in the same glands as cortisol and epinephrine, so excess cortisol production may hamper optimal production of these sex hormones.
Potential ways to lower cortisol:
It's really important to first understand what the root cause for elevated cortisol is. Is it stress related? Is it due to a gland issue? depression? medication? Please talk to your health practitioner to get to the root cause and then address that root cause.
If you suspect that stress might be the root cause, be aware of your own stress levels and take steps to manage your stress.
Simple practices such as getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating, deep breathing techniques and a whole foods diet that decreases inflammation are first good steps.
Sleep is critical to the body as important healing and restoration to all cells happens during this time. Those who achieve less than the recommended 6-9 hours each night may experience fatigue, brain fog, lack of motivation, weight gain, trouble concentrating, mood swings, increased illness or inability to properly fight illness, and more.
Treatments are focused on addressing the cause but may also include cortisol calming agents if warranted such as L-theanine, Skullcap, Holy basil, Chamomile, and Magnesium before bed. Avoiding electronics, physical activity, sugar, and alcohol at night may help with sleep.
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