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“Stress is bad for your health.” It’s something you’ve likely heard everyone from your doctor to a well-meaning friend tell you. (As if the stressors themselves weren’t distressing enough, right?) It’s true that living in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight can wreak havoc on your health in large part due to how it impacts a hormone called cortisol, which is aptly nicknamed “the stress hormone.”
Cortisol plays an important role in the body; like stress itself, it isn’t necessarily “bad.” Cortisol affects every single organ and tissue in the body including helping regulate metabolism, keeping inflammation in check, regulating blood pressure and blood sugar, and supporting circadian rhythm. The key is maintaining healthy levels; too high or too low levels are bad news for health in a whole slew of ways. Chronically high levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems and increase the risk of heart attack—yikes, right?
Related: 92 Ways to Stress Less This Week
Despite it playing such a crucial role in our health, the average person has no idea where their cortisol levels fall—me included. So, when I heard about personal health company Rootine’s at-home cortisol test, I decided to give it a try. What I learned about my health was a pretty major wake-up call.
How the At-Home Cortisol Test Works
For the record, I am in no way affiliated with Rootine; the test was just something I heard about and thought was interesting. (Also for the record, they did let me do the test for free since I am a health journalist. Otherwise, it costs $125, or $95 per test if you commit to doing it four times a year.)
While I am familiar with the importance of keeping cortisol levels in check, it was not something I was generally worried about in regard to my own health. As far as stress goes, mine ranks pretty low. I don’t have kids. I work for myself, which allows for flexible hours. I am fortunate enough to earn enough money that allows me to pay my bills. This is in stark contrast to the estimated 8.4 million American adults who suffer from chronic stress, anxiety or depression. When talking about stress, it’s important to recognize that millions of people in the U.S. are chronically stressed for reasons out of their control, including due to the effects of racism and financial insecurity. All of this is to say, I went into this whole at-home cortisol test experiment expecting my levels to be where they should be.
When I got the test in the mail, it consisted of three little empty plastic tubes. According to the instructions, I was to generate enough spit to fill a tube at three different points in the day: when I woke up in the morning, mid-day and shortly before going to sleep at night. Later, when I went over my results with Sarah Morgan, CN, MS, a clinical nutritionist and the head of nutrition innovation at Rootine, she told me that this is because cortisol naturally ebbs and flows throughout the day. That’s why it’s important to test cortisol levels a few different times throughout the day as opposed to just once.
I’ve done my fair share of at-home tests and while filling three tubes with spit may sound a little gross, it’s certainly easier than pricking your finger and filling up vials of blood, collecting stool samples for an at-home gut test, or even sticking a Q-tip up your nostril for an at-home COVID test. After I filled my vials (and downloaded the corresponding app), all I had to do was drop them in the prepaid envelope and mail it off.
What I Learned About My Health Through My Results
Just a few weeks later, my results were in. On Rootine’s cortisol scale of Optimized to Exhausted, my results clocked in as “Alarmed,” which isn’t horrible, but it wasn’t exactly where I expected them to be. I didn’t feel stressed out, so I started wracking my brain about what could be getting in the way of my perfect score. (Shout-out to the other overachievers out there.) Was it my nightly glass of wine before bed? Was I eating too much sugar? Is it because I often forget to take my ashwagandha?
Everyone who takes Rootine’s at-home cortisol test has the opportunity to book a one-on-one session with one of their clinicians to go over their results. Mine was with Morgan and she was immensely helpful in explaining to me the reasons behind mine. Looking at my graph, she tells me that my cortisol levels are right where they should be in the morning and afternoon (as indicated by the results of my morning and afternoon spit vials). It’s the before-bed test that landed me in the “Alarmed” zone. Morgan said there were a few reasons for this. One could be not having a healthy bedtime routine in place. Pre-bedtime screen time, drinking alcohol or not decompressing from work could all be potential reasons cortisol may spike in the evening, Morgan told me.
She also said that working out too late in the afternoon can cause cortisol levels to rise in the evening. This reason, she said, isn’t necessarily a “bad” one since exercise is beneficial for overall health; it’s just something to be aware of as a symptom that can raise evening cortisol levels.
Here’s what Morgan said that really made me pay attention: While my cortisol levels aren’t at a worrisome level currently, if I didn’t get the evening number under control, my morning cortisol level could enter the red zone, and then the mid-afternoon one to follow. For people who already have these numbers in the red zone, it’s a big indicator that it’s time to make some lifestyle changes.
How Long Does It Take To Get High Cortisol Levels to a Healthy Place?
“The earlier you alter your stress response, the quicker your body will heal,” Morgan says when I ask her how long it would take me to get from “Alarmed” to “Optimized.” This means that if I was diligent about putting in place a healthy bedtime routine, nixing my nightly glass of wine and moving my workout to earlier in the day, I could expect my evening cortisol levels to go down in a few weeks.
For someone who has chronically high cortisol levels, Morgan says turning the numbers around takes longer, roughly 12 to 18 months. While this may sound discouraging, Morgan points out that many people have been living in a high-stress state for five years or even a decade, so it takes a long time to get there too.
While it bears repeating that, for many, there are everyday stressors that are out of their control, what is encouraging is that cortisol levels can be controlled, to a certain extent. Eating healthy foods, meditating, doing yoga and getting consistently good sleep are all habits that can support healthy cortisol levels.
Now that I know what my cortisol levels are, I know that I need to change my evening routine. Otherwise, my health could be negatively impacted down the road. Just like how our wearables can tell us how much REM sleep we’re getting or if we’re not moving our bodies enough, I consider tests like this another helpful tool in gaining insight into our personal health. Knowledge is power, after all.
Sarah Morgan, CN, MS, clinical nutritionist and the head of nutrition innovation at Rootine
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