Cortisol Levels and Genetics

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Cortisol Levels and Genetics

Date of Content: March 9, 2024
Written by: Harvey Talento
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD


Understanding Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, also called a glucocorticoid, produced by your adrenal glands. These glands sit on top of your kidneys. It is often called the “stress hormone” as it plays a vital role in our body’s fight-or-flight response. Cortisol has numerous important functions, but keeping us alert and energized during stressful situations is a key one.

Cortisol levels

Cortisol's Daily Rhythm

Cortisol operates on a circadian rhythm called the diurnal rhythm. This rhythm governs the fluctuations of cortisol levels throughout the day, which regulates various physiological processes.

In the early hours of the morning, cortisol levels peak, contributing to the wakefulness and alertness we experience upon rising. This surge in cortisol helps mobilize energy reserves and initiates essential bodily functions to prepare us for the day ahead. As the day progresses, cortisol levels gradually decline, reflecting the body’s diminishing need for heightened alertness.

By midday, cortisol levels begin to plateau, more subtly influencing our physiology. During this time, cortisol continues to modulate our response to stressors, aiding in the regulation of blood pressure, metabolism, and immune function.

As evening approaches, cortisol levels taper off further, signaling the body to wind down and prepare for rest. By late evening, cortisol reaches its lowest point, facilitating relaxation and promoting sleep onset. This decrease in cortisol allows other hormones, such as melatonin, to take precedence, further aiding in the transition to restorative sleep.

Understanding the diurnal rhythm of cortisol is crucial for maintaining optimal well-being. By aligning our activities with the natural fluctuations of cortisol, we can optimize our energy levels, enhance our resilience to stress, and promote overall balance in our daily lives.

When Cortisol Levels Get Out of Balance

Chronically high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our wellness. Chronic stress, certain medical conditions, and even some medications can contribute to this imbalance. Here’s what you need to know about abnormal cortisol levels:

How Genetics May Influence Cortisol Levels

Genetic factors are crucial in shaping various physiological processes within the human body, including regulating cortisol levels. Understanding the genetic determinants of cortisol regulation sheds light on individual differences in stress response and holds implications for wellness outcomes and susceptibility to stress-related conditions.

Interestingly, the chromosome 14 region with several genes encoding for SERPIN gene family members has emerged as a significant factor in determining blood cortisol levels in many studies, such as a GWAS meta-analysis published in 2021.  Serpins (serine protease inhibitors or classified inhibitor family I4) are the largest and most broadly distributed superfamily of protease inhibitors. Serpin-like genes have been identified in animals, poxviruses, plants, bacteria, and archaea, and over 1,500 members of this family have been identified to date and they slow broad functional diversity. 


SERPINA6, located on chromosome 14, encodes for corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG), the primary carrier protein for cortisol in plasma. CBG plays a crucial role in regulating the bioavailability and transport of cortisol.

Variations within the SERPINA6 gene have been associated with alterations in CBG concentrations and activity, impacting cortisol binding and release dynamics. Notably, common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) near the SERPINA6 promoter such as rs7146221, have been identified through genome-wide association studies (GWAS) as contributors to plasma cortisol levels.

These findings highlight the significance of SERPINA6 in modulating cortisol homeostasis and its potential implications in stress-related disorders and other cortisol-associated diseases.


Situated adjacent to SERPINA6 on chromosome 14, SERPINA1 encodes for α1-antitrypsin, a protease inhibitor with diverse physiological functions, including inhibiting enzymes in inflammatory processes. 

Of particular relevance to cortisol regulation, α1-antitrypsin also plays a role in modulating the activity of corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG). By inhibiting the cleavage of the reactive center loop of CBG, α1-antitrypsin regulates the release of cortisol from its bound form.

Mutations or common genetic variations, such as rs1243171, within or close to SERPINA1 can affect its interaction with CBG, influencing cortisol availability and plasma levels. Through genetic studies, common variants and rare missense mutations within SERPINA1 have been identified as contributors to cortisol-related traits and diseases, underscoring the importance of this gene in cortisol metabolism and its potential implications for wellness and disease.

In conclusion, genetic factors, such as genetic variation affecting SERPINA1, 2, 6, and 10 genes,  exert a significant influence on cortisol regulation, impacting individual responses to stress and vulnerability to stress-related disorders. These insights not only deepen our understanding of stress physiology but also hold promise for personalized interventions targeting stress-related conditions.

Non-Genetic Factors Influencing Cortisol Levels

Normal cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm, with levels highest in the morning and tapering off throughout the day.  However, several factors can influence cortisol levels:

  • Stress: This is the most well-known factor that can influence cortisol levels. When you experience stress, your body releases cortisol to help you cope. Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which can have several negative health consequences.
  • Diet: Studies have shown that a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Conversely, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to keep cortisol levels in check.
  • Sleep: Lack of sleep can disrupt the normal cortisol rhythm, leading to elevated cortisol levels. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night to help regulate your cortisol levels.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help to reduce stress and improve sleep quality, both of which can help to keep cortisol levels in check. However, excessive exercise can also lead to elevated cortisol levels.
  • Caffeine: When people consume caffeine, a common stimulant found in coffee and other drinks, it can boost their cortisol levels, especially if they’re not accustomed to its effects.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol consumption disrupts the body’s usual cortisol rhythm, leading to irregular fluctuations in cortisol levels.
  • Smoking: Smoking is known to raise cortisol levels in individuals, exacerbating their body’s stress response.
  • Medications: Certain medications, such as corticosteroids, have the potential to raise cortisol levels as a side effect, prompting the need for careful monitoring of cortisol levels.
  • Medical Conditions: Diseases like Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease have a significant impact on how the body regulates cortisol, causing abnormal patterns of cortisol secretion.

How to Optimize Cortisol Levels

Here are some ways you can optimize your cortisol levels:


  • Eat a balanced, whole-food diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods provide sustained energy and help regulate blood sugar levels, reducing stress on the body.
  • Limit processed foods, sugary drinks, and unhealthy fats. These can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, contributing to stress and potentially raising cortisol levels.
  • Consider incorporating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, flax, and chia seeds. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and may help manage stress.


  • Prioritize getting enough sleep, aiming for 7-8 hours per night. A consistent sleep schedule helps regulate your body’s natural cortisol rhythm.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine to wind down before sleep. This could include taking a warm bath, reading a book, or practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment. Ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Limit screen time before bed as the blue light emitted from electronic devices can interfere with sleep.

Stress Management

  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. These techniques can help activate the body’s relaxation response, counteracting the stress response and lowering cortisol levels.
  • Engage in activities you enjoy. Taking time for hobbies and leisure pursuits can be a great way to reduce stress and improve your mood.
  • Consider spending time in nature. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors can have a calming effect and reduce cortisol levels.

Other Lifestyle Factors

  • Limit caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Caffeine can interfere with sleep and potentially elevate cortisol levels.
  • Moderate alcohol consumption. Alcohol disrupts sleep and can lead to elevated cortisol levels.
  • Consider quitting smoking if you smoke. Smoking is a stressor and can increase cortisol levels.
  • Maintain a healthy exercise routine. Regular exercise can be a great way to manage stress and improve sleep, which can help regulate cortisol levels. However, avoid excessive exercise as this can have the opposite effect.

Remember: It’s important to consult with a doctor if you’re concerned about chronically high cortisol levels. They can assess your situation, recommend the most appropriate course of action, and potentially address any underlying medical conditions.

About the LifeDNA Vitamins & Supplements Report

We all know the importance of a healthy diet, a good exercise routine, and relaxation, to cortisol levels and other bodily functions. However, sometimes, our bodies crave a little extra support. That’s where vitamins and supplements come in.

With the LifeDNA Vitamins & Supplements Report, you can gain personalized insights into which vitamins and supplements may best support your unique genetic makeup and lifestyle, helping you optimize your well-being. 

Take a step towards a better you and unlock the power of personalized wellness with the LifeDNA Vitamins & Supplements Report. Get your report today and discover how targeted supplementation can enhance overall wellness and vitality.


  • Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, regulates our body’s response to stress, among other functions.
  • Cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning to aid wakefulness and declining throughout the day to facilitate relaxation and sleep.
  • Abnormal cortisol levels, whether high (hypercortisolism) or low (Addison’s disease), can lead to various health issues and hormonal disorders.
  • Genetic factors, including variants in genes like SERPINA6 and SERPINA1, play a significant role in regulating cortisol metabolism and response to stress.
  • Several factors such as stress, diet, sleep, exercise, caffeine, alcohol, smoking, medications, and medical conditions can influence cortisol levels.
  • Lifestyle changes including diet, sleep hygiene, stress management techniques, and other healthy habits can help optimize cortisol levels and overall well-being.
  • Phosphorus is an essential non-metal, symbolized as P on the periodic table. It is a mineral that is crucial for biological molecules (DNA, RNA, ATP), energy transfer, cellular structure, and genetic coding. It is also vital in cycles through ecosystems, influencing food production, but overuse can lead to environmental issues like water pollution.
  • Phosphorus is mainly sourced from phosphate rocks globally, concentrated in regions like North Africa, China, Russia, and the United States.
  • In agriculture, phosphorus fertilizers enhance crop growth, but their careful management is essential to prevent environmental concerns.
  • The body needs phosphorus. It is indispensable for DNA, RNA, ATP, bone structure, and cellular functions. It also plays a role in protein synthesis, enzyme activity, pH balance, and endocrine regulation.
  • Dietary intake, calcium-phosphorus ratio, vitamin D status, renal function, medications, physical activity, age, and gastrointestinal disorders influence phosphorus levels.
  • Phosphorus also contributes to cell membrane structure, blood buffering, endocrine gland function, brain, nervous system, and muscle function.
  • Phosphorus is vital for various bodily functions, emphasizing the need for a balanced intake. However, excessive intake can lead to health complications, and maintaining optimal levels is crucial for overall well-being.



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*Understanding your genetics can offer valuable insights into your well-being, but it is not deterministic. Your traits can be influenced by the complex interplay involving nature, lifestyle, family history, and others.

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