High Cortisol

Dearest Reader,

This information is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose or highlight imperfections. You've likely landed here following your results of my quiz at YourHormoneQuiz.com. No matter what you discover in these results, you're beautiful and perfect as you are. You're good enough and trying hard enough. We're all unique and will experience hormonal shifts differently. This information is here to highlight that, despite what we've been told, we're not just little men — our bodies work differently — and if our hormones have us feeling less than our best, we absolutely can do something about it. My aim is to support and empower you on your journey, where you need and want it. Take what you need, leave what you don't. No judgement here, just good honest support.

XO, Laurie

High Cortisol

When our stress levels go up, so do our stress hormones — especially cortisol. This is a natural, adaptive response and can be helpful in times of need. However, if our stress levels remain high for too long it can negatively impact our overall well-being and long term health. And we’ll likely feel it.

Stress can be a good thing but when it’s regularly high — and that can happen for myriad reasons — it can begin to take a toll on other hormones as well as our health and quality of life.

Stress can be physical or perceived, as well as emotional, mental, financial, work-related, environmental, or relationship-related. It is possible to be physically under stress for one reason or another and not feel it.

Different ways our cortisol hormones get turned up:

Most often, cortisol imbalance is multifactorial and women arrive at high cortisol for various reasons, not just one. Some of these reasons could be:

  • Poor or inadequate diet for our body, activity level or current hormone status
  • Too much or not enough exercise for our body, activity level or current hormone status
  • Insufficient or deficient nutrients
  • Poor digestion or digestive issues
  • Food allergies or intolerances
  • Other allergies
  • Pain, infection, inflammation, injury or illness
  • High blood sugar, or highs and lows
  • Stressful thoughts or worry
  • Alcohol, caffeine, or cigarette smoke (even low or moderate amounts can add stress)
  • Overusing medications or recreational drugs
  • Environmental toxins in our household, water or food
  • Toxic environments, relationships or thoughts
  • Rapid, shallow breathing patterns
  • Overactive limbic system
  • Head injuries or trauma of any type
  • Lack of adequate or quality sleep
  • Lack of rest, recovery or downtime
  • Lack of support or community
  • Lack of self care or love
  • Other stressors not listed…

High Cortisol might look like:

  • A sense of overwhelm or constant stress
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Feeling of not having food willpower
  • Waking up hungry in the middle of the night
  • Easily catching colds or other illnesses
  • High blood sugar 
  • Insulin resistance
  • Metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes
  • Poor gut health or IBS
  • Impaired digestion
  • Suboptimal thyroid function
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Depression
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Feeling shaky if not eating often
  • Weight gain, especially in the midsection
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Poor metabolism
  • Second wind in the evening
  • Feeling wired but tired
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep
  • Depending on caffeine or carbs to get you through the day
  • Craving sweets, carbs or salty foods
  • PMS or menopausal symptoms
  • Loss of libido
  • Decreased bone strength or health
  • PCOS
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Infertility or miscarriage
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sounds or smells
  • And more…

Cortisol imbalance will present itself differently in different women. You might find you have a few or many of the symptoms above while another woman could have completely different ones.

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What’s happening physiologically when cortisol goes high?

At the level of the brain, first the hypothalamus and then the pituitary gland signal your adrenal glands to make cortisol.

At the nutritional level, the body needs certain nutrients to make and break down these hormones, namely protein and cholesterol.

Cholesterol is the backbone of all of our sex and stress hormones and plays a critical role in controlling and supporting a number of the body’s functions. Also important are vitamin E and C, the Bs and magnesium, to name a few.

The more hormones we make, the more these needs increase. In addition to making hormones, we need supportive nutrients to break down and move these hormones out of our system after use — otherwise they remain circulating, causing more issues.

Not only that, when one hormone goes high, another often goes low. Our stress hormones are built from the same building blocks as our sex hormones. When the body is under stress it prioritizes using these building blocks to make our stress hormones before our sex hormones.

In addition, there are many other ways in which high cortisol impacts other hormones.

How high cortisol affects other hormones

High stress hormones often cause a decline in essential sex hormones causing noticeable changes in our health, our periods, PMS, pregnancy and fertility, to name a few.

Another hormone, DHEA, rises with an increase in cortisol to help counterbalance the negative effects but after excessive stress, this number can fall reducing the counterbalancing effects. DHEA is known as a calming hormone and is associated with joy and an ability to bounce back from stressors.

DHEA is a precursor to our sex hormones. An over or under production of DHEA can greatly influence the production of our sex hormones.

And with the rise in cortisol comes the rise in blood sugar and therefore a rise in insulin, the blood-sugar-managing hormone. When insulin goes high, our growth hormone goes low, the hormone responsible for growth and repair as well as fat burning.

When cortisol is high, melatonin goes low, and vise versa. Melatonin initiates sleep but is also a supportive antioxidant for brain and ovarian health.

If your cortisol levels are unnaturally high in the evenings — when they usually go low as melatonin rises in preparation for sleep — this will disrupt melatonin production, influencing sleep and causing disruption of other key hormones.

What we can do about it

When dealing with hormone imbalance, it’s important to address what’s causing it. Asking yourself: What could be at the root of having high cortisol? Dealing with the root cause is essential.

Restoring balance of high cortisol most often requires — first and foremost — reestablishing a strong foundation, supported with diet and lifestyle. Reducing your total stress load is key while nourishing your neuroendocrine system with stress reducing and stress managing practices, such as improving sleep, optimizing nutrition and type of exercise, shifting mindset and unsupportive thought patterns, and sometimes targeted supplementation.

If you have some ideas, that could be a good place to start. Here are a few other ways we can positively influence our cortisol levels.

Not sure where to start?

Here are 3 easy and free ways you can get started right now:

  1. Try square breathing throughout the day, which helps stimulate the body’s relaxation response.
  2. Upgrade your sleep quality and quantity to match your stress levels and lifestyle, as well as syncing up your sleep and light exposure (especially blue light) with the daylight hours. The more stress and activity, and the more intense your movement or events, the more sleep is needed. This is essential for better hormone balance.
  3. Book a Hormone Harmony Strategy Session with me to discover tools and strategies to optimize your nutrition, exercise and movement, lifestyle and mindset to better support your bigger vision and goals.  (See below.)

Check out this post for even more ways to get your hormones back in harmony.



This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, manage, or treat disease or serious conditions. Always check with your doctor before making any changes. It's important to consult a well-informed health practitioner for personal advice about your situation before relying on general information we're all wonderfully unique.

Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT

Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and board certified health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help  women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.

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