What is Serum Cortisol?

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  • Written By: Pamela Pleasant
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 31 January 2019
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Serum cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. This hormone is released within the body to increase blood sugar and regulate metabolism. It is also released when excessive stress is felt. Fluctuations of the cortisol levels within the body can affect mental well-being.

A cortisol blood test can measure the amount of cortisol in the body and determine if there are problems with the adrenal gland. It can also identify Cushing’s syndrome. This condition raises cortisol levels and causes weight gain and obesity. Thin arms and legs, along with excessive weight carried around the midsection are typically symptoms of a high cortisol level. Low cortisol levels can also cause certain conditions and diseases, including Addison‘s disease.

Low cortisol levels can produce low blood pressure, as well as low blood sugar. Both of these conditions can suppress the immune system and cause weakness and changes in skin pigmentation. These symptoms are not always present and are typically only seen when excessive stress is felt. Extreme sweating can cause a drop in sodium levels, which can also lower cortisol levels. After the sodium levels are restored, the cortisol levels will usually return to normal.


Cortisol levels can vary depending on time of day or whether a patient is taking a long-term prescription medication. A serum cortisol test is usually given in the early morning for a more accurate reading. This is when the levels are highest, while the lowest levels are seen late at night. Other things such as estrogen use or pregnancy can have an effect on the cortisol levels, so a normal level can differ in each individual patient. The average level for an adult is typically 5 to 30 micrograms.

By eliminating or reducing excessive stress, it is possible to control fluctuating cortisol levels because stress is the most common reason for increased levels. Yoga, meditation, and daily exercise can also produce normal numbers. A healthy diet can also help but this depends on whether the cortisol levels are too high or too low. For example, a diet high in carbohydrates can increase levels, while a low-sodium diet can decrease these levels.


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