In a natural rhythm, your body produces more cortisol in the morning than in the evening, giving you the energy you need to begin your day. In the evening your cortisol level should drop by approximately 90%. Evening is generally the time when the stresses of the day are behind you, the time when you can relax and unwind. Scientific data is showing that elevated cortisol levels are becoming more commonplace.
As important and necessary as cortisol is, you can have too much of it circulating in your system. If you are constantly under stress, your cortisol level can remain elevated over long periods of time. Research now correlates chronically elevated levels of cortisol with blood sugar problems, fat accumulation, compromised immune function, exhaustion, bone loss, and even heart disease. Memory loss has also been associated with high cortisol levels. Continual stress can indeed have a negative impact on your health.
A recent study found that women who work outside the home and have family responsibilities tend to have elevated evening cortisol levels. Men, on the other hand, have the expected lower cortisol levels in the evening. This difference may reflect the additional work that many women do after they get home from their jobs.
Interestingly, differences between women and men in relationship to cortisol extend even further. One study, that examined the effect of harassment on cortisol levels, noted that recovery from stress was significantly different between men and women. Harassed men actually had the largest increase in cortisol levels, but once the stress was eliminated men returned to normal more quickly than women.
In a scientific investigation of 30,000 women and men in 30 countries, women were shown to be more likely than men to report feeling stress. In response to issues of family, work and money, whether they are in a relationship or not, a parent or not, women are more stressed than men in the same situation. Working women with children were found to have the highest stress levels.
An additional problem of long term elevations of cortisol is that the adrenal gland may wear itself out and no longer be able to produce even normal levels of cortisol. This is called "adrenal exhaustion" and is associated with many other health problems.
An elevated cortisol level is not something you can immediately feel. If it is elevated for too long, over a period of months or years for example, you may begin to feel its effects because of the negative impact it has on your overall health. Besides impacting the immune system, fertility, and bone health, the list of the risks of high cortisol levels grows longer. New studies demonstrate that elevated cortisol levels can lead to abdominal weight gain, loss of verbal declarative memory (words, names, and numbers), insulin resistance, and Type 2 Diabetes.
Managing stress is a very important part of your healthcare program. A blood, urine or saliva hormone test for cortisol can serve as a stress barometer, warning you of continual exposure to stress, and therefore to potential disease. Testing will let you know if you need to do something about your stress, such as taking action to change your circumstances, or making strides in new areas of relaxation and stress relief. Once you know your cortisol level you can begin to take stress-reducing measures in your life and protect your long-term health.