Cortisol Tests: Saliva, Blood, & Urine Level Checks
Cortisol Tests Explained
Testing for cortisol levels is one of the more important medical tests that we don't usually hear of. These tests are used to measure one of the most overlooked hormones in our body: cortisol.
If your healthcare provider or doctor has ordered a cortisol test for you, it might seem worrying. But it’s actually easy and pain-free, and usually just takes a few minutes to do.
Today we'll look into what a cortisol test is, how it's done, and why it's essential.
What is a Cortisol Test?
A cortisol level test is a medical exam used to check the level of cortisol in your body. The test is sometimes also known as a dexamethasone suppression test.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. It is one of the most important hormones because it affects almost every other organ and tissue. It’s used to regulate a variety of body functions: it helps maintain blood sugar, blood pressure, and proper metabolism by helping break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The hormone is also essential for fighting stress and infection.
Why Test Cortisol?
Your doctor may want to check cortisol levels in your body if he suspects you have abnormally high or low cortisol levels, both of which lead to several severe health conditions. The symptoms that trigger these vary, but commonly involve irregular menstruation in women, or delayed development in children.
Reduced cortisol leads to a condition known as Addison disease, while an excess of it is diagnosed as Cushing’s syndrome. These two conditions affect your weight, blood pressure, and muscles, among others.
If you have extremely low cortisol levels, it can even lead to a potentially fatal disease called adrenal crisis.
Do I Need A Cortisol Test?
Your doctor will let you know if you need to undergo a cortisol saliva test or any of its variations. He or she will usually look for symptoms that are suggestive of Cushing’s syndrome, Addison disease, or an adrenal crisis.
Signs of Cushing syndrome include hypertension, elevated blood sugar levels, obesity, muscle weakness, and osteoporosis. If you’re suffering from Addison disease, you’ll most likely experience unexplained weight loss, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. You’ll see hair loss or a general feeling of weakness.
Adrenal crisis is also another life-threatening condition that needs to be tested immediately. The symptoms include confusion, critically low blood pressure, diarrhea, and loss of consciousness.
What to Expect During a Cortisol Test
You can take any one of three types of cortisol tests: a cortisol saliva test, cortisol blood test, or cortisol urine test.
Testing cortisol levels via blood is the easiest way, and takes less than five minutes. The test is best done during the morning, where cortisol levels are the highest, and again during the late afternoon. Hence why it's also known as a cortisol AM test.
If you’re wondering how to test cortisol levels at home using your saliva, it's usually done with a test kit. It's usually done at night when cortisol levels are lower.
Testing cortisol with your urine means you need to collect it throughout the day. A testing kit is usually available where you can store your urine within 24 hours.
What Do The Results Mean?
Cortisol levels vary throughout the day. It's usually lowest during bedtime and highest when you wake up. If your cortisol levels are shown to be elevated during the day and don't drop, it might suggest Cushing syndrome.
On the other hand, if cortisol levels are undetectable or extremely low, you might have Addison disease or adrenal crisis for critically low levels.
The results of a cortisol test tell you there is an abnormal level of it in the blood. Still, it's usually not indicative of the source of the problem. That's why it's usually a trigger to perform further tests to find out if damaged adrenal glands, pituitary glands, or tumor growth is the cause of the abnormality.
What Else Should I Know?
Cortisol levels can be affected by certain factors like age and pre-existing conditions. Generally, children will tend to have lower cortisol levels than adults do.
Other factors cause changes in cortisol levels that don't involve any underlying health problems. These include elevated stress levels, increased activity such as exercise, and temperature swings. Pregnancy can also affect cortisol levels, as do certain drugs.
Your doctor will usually take these into account when interpreting your test results.
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