What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that our adrenal glands secrete. It helps many major body processes, such as:
- Regulating blood sugar and blood pressure
- Metabolizing fat, protein and carbohydrates
- Keeping the immune system working properly
Maintaining proper cortisol levels is an important facet of our bodies staying healthy. If cortisol levels are imbalanced, it can lead to adrenal fatigue and function, Cushing’s syndrome, and Addison’s disease.
Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol plays a large role in how the body responds to stress. In fact, it’s usually when the body is under stress that cortisol is released–a part of how we have evolved to deal with fight-or-flight situations. Cortisol helps the body deal with stress by releasing some of the body’s supply of glucose as well as substances that are vital for restoring the body in case of physical harm.
Cortisol also shuts down various functions related to our immune, digestive and reproductive systems–functions that would not be vital in natural fight-or-flight circumstances.
In a nutshell, it signals to the body that all of the body’s energy should be focused on responding effectively to the more immediate stress, whatever it may be. So with all of that in mind, it’s easier to understand why medical professionals consider stress management to be such an important part of our health.
If you suspect that you’re experiencing imbalances in cortisol, consider using a home cortisol test kit. Cortisol tests are becoming increasingly popular, often because of frustrations that patients experience when trying to arrange for testing via traditional referrals in our current health care system. At-home cortisol tests allow you to get the information yourself, without long waits or referrals.
In addition to anyone experiencing the following symptoms listed below, it’s a great idea to get your cortisol levels checked if you are combating depression, diabetes, alcoholism, anxiety, or other chronic health conditions.
Symptoms of High Levels of Cortisol
- Increased blood pressure
- Decreased concentration
- Changes in menstrual cycle and body hair
- Erectile dysfunction
Low Cortisol Symptoms
- Low blood pressure
- Darkened skin known as hyperpigmentation
- Salty food cravings
- Muscle cramps
- Sexual dysfunction or loss of hair for women
LiveWellTesting.com and Amazon sell a diurnal cortisol saliva test kit by ZRT Laboratories.
HealthLabs.com sells two cortisol tests: one that tests once, and another that tests twice (once in the morning and once in the afternoon). As stated earlier, a test that records your cortisol level twice will provide better information than a test that records it once.
Everlywell offers a metabolism test that includes cortisol as one of the markers tested. Unlike other tests, this test includes both a saliva sample and a blood sample.
Everlywell also offers a sleep and stress test, which includes cortisol levels. You are technically paying for more than just a cortisol test, but the advantage is that this kit allows you to measure your cortisol levels at four times in a day (in the morning, afternoon, evening and nighttime). This makes the results more thorough and actionable, saving you from some potential follow-up cortisol testing afterward.
Test prices range from $89 to $249.
Test results will identify both high and low levels of cortisol. The results provide valuable information, but they aren’t intended to serve as a diagnosis. You should share your results with your healthcare provider. He or she may then use the information to diagnose conditions affecting the pituitary or adrenal glands and/or to help diagnose Cushing’s syndrome or primary or secondary adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease).
One very attractive aspect of home testing kits is that you can purchase them easily online. Some companies offer a cortisol testing kit only from their website, while others sell their kits through sites like Amazon. After ordering the test, most kits will arrive within 2-5 business days.
Open the kit and read the instructions carefully.
Some kits will require you to register online before sending in a sample. Directions for collecting the sample will be included in the kit. If you need more help, often the company posts detailed instructional videos on its website.
Collect either saliva or blood (depending on the test kit).
How you take a cortisol test depends on the testing kit. Some kits ask for a blood sample collected in the morning and again in the evening, while another kit will test saliva in the morning, noon, evening and night. One popular kit even involves collecting both saliva and blood.
There are some other testing kits that ask for only one sample from one time of day. However, it’s recommended that in order to obtain an accurate cortisol reading, cortisol levels should be tested multiple times a day because cortisol fluctuates throughout the day. It’s higher in the morning and lower in the afternoon. Be sure to read the instructions carefully because some kits advise women to collect a sample on day 19, 20 or 21 of their cycle. Some kits may also have fasting instructions that you need to follow before collecting a sample.
Mail it back to the lab; results are available within days.
Once you collect your sample, seal it in the prepaid envelope and place it in the mail. After the lab receives the sample, your results should be posted or emailed to you within 1-5 business days, depending on the company.
Samples are sent to CLIA certified labs to ensure reliable results, and some companies contract medical professionals to review your results. Companies state that the health information you provide and the tests you order are for informational purposes only. The information in the results should be accurate, but to receive any interpretation of these results, you are responsible for sharing your test results with your doctor.
Customers rave about the practicality of taking the test at home and the easy-to-follow instructions. Some also describe how these at-home cortisol tests allow them to learn results they weren’t able to find otherwise, because of difficulties order the test through their own doctor for various referral or in-patient reasons. Many customers state that after taking the test, they’ve been able to share the results with their doctor and are now getting the treatment they need.