A Guide To Balanced, Normal Cortisol Levels

Feb 05, 2021

You’ve probably heard of big bad cortisol, but in reality, it’s not all that bad, it’s more like goldilocks, it needs to be in a sweet spot. 


What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal cortex. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory but is also a stress hormone. When cortisol levels fall too low you’ll have difficulty regulating your blood sugar, building proper bone health, and maintaining energy. When cortisol is too high you’ll experience a wired but tired feeling, anxiety, jittery feelings, and hold on to stubborn belly fat. And this is why it’s Goldilocks! 


Symptoms of cortisol imbalance:

  •     Anxiety
  •     Depression
  •     Digestive issues
  •     Brain fog
  •     Weight gain
  •     Muscle loss
  •     Sleep problems
  •     PMS symptoms
  •     Frequent colds or infections


What is balanced cortisol?

What makes understanding cortisol even tricker, is it’s not just about “high” or “low”, cortisol levels should follow a natural rhythm throughout the day.


Cortisol levels should jump up when we wake up to suppress melatonin and help us wake up. The levels further elevate in the afternoon to keep us going strong with energy throughout our day. Finally, cortisol levels lower in the evening to allow for a rise in melatonin when it’s time for bed.


If it’s too high at night you’ll have a hard time falling asleep and producing melatonin. 


If it’s too high all day you’ll hold on to stubborn belly fat. 

If it’s too low in the morning or afternoon you’ll feel bone-crushing fatigue without cortisol to get you up and going. 


And to further complicate matters, you need to take free cortisol and metabolized cortisol into consideration as well. These are all patterns that I look for when analyzing a client’s DUTCH test (dried urine hormone test). 


Here is an example of what analyzing cortisol patterns using the DUTCH would look like: 



Understanding cortisol patterns:

1.   High free cortisol and high metabolized cortisol

This means that your body is just constantly pumping out too much cortisol all around and isn’t able to clear it out. This is usually the result of diet and lifestyle. These individuals usually feel constantly on edge and anxious. 


Rebalance high free and high metabolized by: 

  •     Implementing an anti-inflammatory diet 

  •     Work on healing the gut 

  •     Avoid alcohol and stimulants 

  •     Weight loss if applicable 

  •     Guided meditation apps 

  •     Lots of Work on sleep is also important here. I have several videos on how to improve your sleep you can watch below!

  •     Soothing essential oils before bedtime can be relaxing and can help lower cortisol levels as well. One of the best known essential oils for lowering cortisol is called clary sage. 



Want my help with essential oils? Get my favorite starter kit here: https://www.doterra.com/US/en/my-cart and email me with any questions! [email protected]


2. Low free and low metabolized cortisol 

This is most likely a communication error between the brain and adrenals and is what is typically known as “adrenal dysfunction.”


Symptoms of low free and low metabolized cortisol are:

  •     Adrenal fatigue

  •     Weakness

  •     Poor recovery from exercise

  •     Joint pain

  •     Unstable mood/depression

  •     Shaky or light-headed if a meal is missed

  •     Dizziness upon standing

  •     Reduced stress tolerance

  •     Digestive issues/food intolerance


This is a difficult problem to fix without addressing the root cause of what contributed to this state in the first place. 

Some potential root causes are: 

  • PTSD

  • Long Term health problems (chronic fatigue, SIBO, fibromyalgia) 

  • Certain meds (especially steroid-like treatments for Crohn’s RA, asthma, etc) 

  • Opioids and Accutane 

  • Lack of nutrients for cortisol synthesis 

  • Sleep apnea

  • Thyroid/Addison’s 

  • TBI


Rebalance low free and low metabolized by: 

  • Focus on allowing the body to rest and recover
  • Workouts should be gentle, diet should be nutrient-dense and adrenal supporting, self-care, gratitude journaling and sleep are all helpful recovery strategies here

*This pattern is one of the longest and hardest recoveries, usually taking between 6-12 months and you need to address that root cause to be able to really make progress here.


3. Low free and high metabolized cortisol

This happens when the body is making a normal amount of cortisol but it is being broken down too aggressively.


Rebalance low free and high cortisol by: 

  • Calming and supporting the HPA axis WITHOUT stimulating it 

  • Work on detoxification 

  • Improve gut health

  • Avoid caffeine

  • Lose weight if needed

  • Get good sleep 

  • Prioritize getting enough protein 


4. High free and low metabolized cortisol

This is often a sign of low thyroid function so getting your thyroid checked is important with this pattern. 

With this symptom picture, your Metabolism is impaired so the body doesn’t make as much cortisol and the clearance is sluggish because when the thyroid slows down, everything slows down.


Symptoms of high free and low metabolized cortisol:

  • Anxiety/depression
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Weight gain
  • Sleep problems


Some of the potential root causes of this pattern are:

  • Low thyroid
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Poor liver detoxification
  • Estrogen dominance
  • Anorexia because metabolism is impaired and the body isn’t making enough cortisol 


Rebalance high free and low metabolized cortisol by:

  • Work on detoxification 
  • Eat lots of foods that support liver function like broccoli and brussel sprouts 
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine
  • Work on slowing down and allowing time to rest
  • Work on improving sleep 
  • Use calming essential oils like Ylang Ylang and Lavender 



As you can see cortisol is so much more complex than just being high or low! And each specific pattern has its own underlying root cause, it’s own symptom picture, and it’s own root cause solutions as well. This is where working with a qualified practitioner can be really helpful. 

No matter what the pattern, anyone can start with the basics of improving digestion, reducing stress, and eating nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory foods, so I recommend starting there! 

If you’re looking for help balancing your cortisol you can apply to work with me and my team here:

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