We’ve all heard of fight-or-flight, but did you know about the importance of the hormone behind it? Cortisol impacts every organ in the body, so when this hormone is out of whack, it’s no wonder we struggle. It’s time to investigate the cause of cortisol hormone imbalance, along with the essential ways we can address it

Ever feel like you have a bunch of different health issues that neither you nor your GP can put your finger on? It might be that you find it really hard to stop your mind racing, your menstrual cycle is all over the place, and you can’t stop thinking about certain cravings (like salty or sweet foods). Perhaps you feel super tired, but can’t actually get a good night’s sleep, and find yourself wide awake at midnight. These all could be signs that your cortisol levels aren’t balanced.

What is cortisol hormone imbalance?

So what is cortisol? Often referred to as our body’s inner alarm, it’s a key hormone that kicks in to help our body deal with stressful situations. When we’re in a state of panic, cortisol is released by our adrenal glands to increase the sugar in our bloodstream. Perfect to give you an energy boost if you’re being chased by a tiger, but less so if you’re staring at your laptop with 1,000 emails to answer. It can also impair non-essential functions that could stop the fight-or-flight response, like your digestion (hence why stress is able to play havoc with your gut).

Cortisol is essential, but if we keep going through this process over and over, so we’re in a constant state of alert, we can end up with a cortisol hormone imbalance. One study found that when observing medical students, their cortisol rose nine times in stressful periods.

“Cortisol is one of our stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands, and it can become imbalanced when we experience too much stress for too long,” says nutritional therapist Jo Rowkins. “Today, our stressors are continuous, and may overwhelm us as it can be relentless. We often have too many stressors for the body to comfortably deal with and, as a result, the body gets stuck in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. While cortisol has many beneficial effects in the body for the short-term, chronic stress hormone output can become detrimental to health.”

How do I know if I have cortisol hormone imbalance?

Cortisol imbalance can lead us to have either lower or higher levels of the stress hormone than usual. When we’re in a constant state of stress, our cortisol levels stay high, and don’t get a chance to return to normal. Eventually, this could have the opposite effect and cause levels to plummet. “Cortisol may stay high for too long, and can eventually lead to a state of depletion, known as adrenal fatigue,” explains Jo Rowkins.

The symptoms you’ll experience depend on whether your levels are high or low. “If cortisol is low, you may experience exhaustion, feelings of overwhelm, thyroid imbalances, difficulty losing weight, dysregulation of the circadian rhythm (such as fatigue upon waking, with a second wind in the evening), salt cravings, and reliance on stimulants like sugar and caffeine,” says Jo.


While if your cortisol levels are too high, other symptoms occur. “Symptoms such as anxiety, racing mind, insomnia, menstrual and ovulatory irregularities, digestive complaints, headaches, increased blood pressure, and inability to relax,” says Jo. This cortisol imbalance can lead to serious health complications, with Diabetes UK revealing that having too much cortisol is linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

There could be all sorts of reasons for these symptoms, but if they occur after a stressful period, and other conditions have been ruled out by your GP, it could be worth investigating your cortisol levels. “A nutritional therapist may recommend functional testing to look at your cortisol levels across the day, which can be done using saliva or urine,” explains Jo Rowkins.

How can we deal with cortisol imbalance?

First up, it’s important to recognise why our cortisol is out of balance. For many of us, this will be due to ongoing stress. While we can’t necessarily banish all stress from our lives, finding ways to manage it is one of the best things you can do.

Chronic stress is in fact the driver behind many common health conditions. Finding a balance between these two systems is crucial in the prevention of disease,” says Jo.

Research has found that when patients undertake measures to reduce stress, their cortisol levels naturally reduce. This could take many forms, for example, one study from the journal Art Therapy discovered that cortisol levels significantly lowered in participants after an art class. However, you don’t have to be Picasso to feel the benefit; if art is not your thing, how about getting outside instead? Research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that spending just 20 minutes in nature helped drop cortisol levels.

“In my clinic, I often recommend lifestyle interventions such as Epsom salt baths, which are a way of absorbing magnesium,” says Jo. “Magnesium is ‘nature’s tranquilliser’, helping to balance the effects of stress by regulating the body’s stress response.”

If you have low levels of cortisol, it’s important to get to the bottom of why this may be. For example, Addison’s disease occurs when the adrenal gland is damaged and can not produce enough cortisol.

If this is the case, your GP will need to do blood tests to determine this. You’ll need to take medication for life to help regulate your cortisol levels, as this can be a serious medical problem. However, if this isn’t the cause, then there are some things you can do to help.

“Low cortisol levels (that aren’t due to Addison’s disease) may be helped by following a blood sugar-balancing diet. Cortisol plays a significant role in balancing blood glucose levels, and levels may be depleted further if a sugary, starchy diet is consumed. Nutrients to support your adrenal function include vitamin B5, magnesium, vitamin C, and tyrosine (an amino acid from protein),” explains Jo.

While we all get stressed from time to time, understanding our cortisol levels is vital to ensure it doesn’t impact our health. If you have any concerns about your health and stress levels, it’s important to speak to your GP.

Jenna Farmer is a journalist who specialises in writing about gut health. She has Crohn’s disease, and blogs at abalancedbelly.co.uk

If you would like to find out more about nutrition, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to a qualified nutritionist.