Evidence Based
4.4 /5

63 Factors Raising Your Stress & Cortisol Level

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Reviewed by Genius Labs Science Team | Last updated:

SelfHacked has the strictest sourcing guidelines in the health industry and we almost exclusively link to medically peer-reviewed studies, usually on PubMed. We believe that the most accurate information is found directly in the scientific source.

We are dedicated to providing the most scientifically valid, unbiased, and comprehensive information on any given topic.

Our team comprises of trained MDs, PhDs, pharmacists, qualified scientists, and certified health and wellness specialists.

All of our content is written by scientists and people with a strong science background.

Our science team is put through the strictest vetting process in the health industry and we often reject applicants who have written articles for many of the largest health websites that are deemed trustworthy. Our science team must pass long technical science tests, difficult logical reasoning and reading comprehension tests. They are continually monitored by our internal peer-review process and if we see anyone making material science errors, we don't let them write for us again.

Our goal is to not have a single piece of inaccurate information on this website. If you feel that any of our content is inaccurate, out-of-date, or otherwise questionable, please leave a comment or contact us at [email protected]

Note that each number in parentheses [1, 2, 3, etc.] is a clickable link to peer-reviewed scientific studies. A plus sign next to the number “[1+, 2+, etc...]” means that the information is found within the full scientific study rather than the abstract.

Stress comes at us from all directions. Some from the stimulating, toxic, crazy world we live in… and some we unknowingly bring on ourselves. Read on to learn some surprising ways you might be setting off your stress response.

What is Stress?

Don’t be scared about everything that activates your stress pathway. It’s natural and healthy for it to be activated moderately. That said, it’s certainly not supposed to be activated constantly.

What we generally think of as stress comes under the category of psychological or social stress [1].

Psychological/Social stress includes worry about income and other job-related stress [2].

However, stress comes in innumerable forms. It can be internal or external. It can be positive stress or negative stress. It can be physical or emotional. It can be due to our own decisions, or totally out of our control. No matter how it comes packaged, stress has a huge impact on us: body, mind, and spirit.

Anxiety can be self-perpetuating. Chronic stress increases CRH receptors in the brain (paraventricular nucleus), which makes you even more susceptible to the harmful effects of stress [3].

Individual Variations in Stress

Everyone is affected differently by stress.

Some conditions/syndromes can also affect the way we respond to stress.

  • Autistic children release higher amounts of cortisol in response to psychological stress and it takes longer for their cortisol to return to normal [4].
  • In IBS, CRH causes significantly higher ACTH release compared to people without IBS [5].

Lifestyle Choices Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Intense prolonged exercise – Increases cortisol in healthy males [6]
  2. Strenuous Breathing – Raises IL-6 and IL-1 in healthy volunteers [7]
  3. Long commutes – Increase cortisol (humans) [8]
  4. Low Power Postures – Body positions that make you appear less confident/dominant (e.g. slumped shoulders) increased cortisol in male and female subjects [9]
  5. Excess Alcohol consumption – Ongoing consumption of alcohol raises cortisol levels in the body [10].
  6. Smoking – Even just 2 cigarettes [11]
  7. Marijuana/Pot/THC – Dose dependently raises cortisol in human studies [12].
  8. Opioid withdrawal – Withdrawal from chronic morphine-induced the HPA axis in rat studies [13]
  9. Sexual stimuli – Increases cortisol in some women, but decreases it in most women [14]

Sleep Disruptions Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Reduced Sleep – A loss of sleep for just one night leads to higher cortisol levels the next evening [1516]
  2. Poor quality sleep – Poor quality sleep activates the HPA axis (stress response) [16]
  3. Staying up late – Cortisol goes up when we are awake during normal sleep times [17]
  4. Circadian Rhythm Disruptions – An Airline cabin crew who had chronic circadian disruptions had higher salivary cortisol [18]. See how to keep to a Circadian Rhythm.

Stimulants Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Caffeine – Increases cortisol (humans) [19]
  2. Nicotine – Increases Acetylcholine, which increases ADH, ACTH, Cortisol (humans) [20]
  3. Yohimbine – Increases cortisol (humans) [21]

Dietary Factors Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Eating activates the stress response (especially in men) [22] – mostly caused by VIP [23]
  2. Protein restriction/Leucine deprivation – Increases CRH and stimulates the stress response in mice [24]
  3. Excess sodium – Increases cortisol [25]
  4. Excess omega-6 – Can raise inflammation, setting off the stress response [26]
  5. Severe calorie restriction – Increases cortisol [27]
  6. Fasting [28] – Modern Ramadan practices in Saudi Arabia are associated with excess evening cortisol (and increased insulin resistance). Other kinds of fasting might decrease CRH and cortisol (shown in rats) [29].
  7. Body fat/Obesity – Fat tissue produces cortisol from cortisone [30]

Nutrient Factors Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Zinc inadequacy – Caused increased susceptibility to stress in rat studies [31].
  2. Magnesium inadequacy – Increases cortisol and HPA response in human and animal studies [32, 33].
  3. Vitamin A inadequacy – Increases cortisol and induces the HPA axis in rat studies [34, 35].
  4. Potassium loading – Increases ACTH and cortisol in humans [36].

Checking Your Cortisol Levels

You can request that your doctor test your cortisol. Conventional doctors will look at high or low cortisol levels and not mention anything. Sometimes, a lab result may be in the reference range, but not actually be in the optimal range. Reference ranges are not the same as optimal ranges. This is why even cortisol in the ‘normal’ range can be unhealthy and indicate that certain processes in the body aren’t optimal.

Underlying Health Challenges Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Inflammation – Prostaglandins [37], Eicosanoids [38], IL-1b, TNF, IL-6 and Histamine [39]
  2. Arachidonic Acid [37] – from excess omega-6 [40]
  3. Pain – Raises cortisol in human studies [41]
  4. Gut permeability – When your gut is permeable, bacteria/endotoxins are capable of passing to your gut lymph node, liver, and spleen, which causes inflammation, and raise cortisol [42]
  5. Hypoglycemia/Low blood sugar – Due to a bad diet, insulin resistance, or a hypothalamic problem [43]
  6. Bacterial, Viral, or other infections – Cause inflammation, setting off a stress response [44, 45]
  7. Physical trauma/Injuries/Surgery – Cause inflammation, setting off a stress response [46]
  8. Platelet Activating Factor – Activates the HPA axis by increasing CRH [38]
  9. ROS/Oxidative Stress – Increases cortisol in (cellular models) [47]

Hormonal Factors Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Estrogen (cellular model) [48]
  2. Pregnenolone – Converts to cortisol and stimulates the HPA axis (rats) [49]
  3. DHEA – Induces CRH and Vasopressin synthesis and release, enhancing ACTH and activating the HPA axis (rats) [49]
  4. Leptin – Activates stress response (mice) [50]
  5. Ghrelin – Activates HPA axis [51]
  6. Thyroid hormones – Activates HPA axis (rat) [52]
  7. Vasopressin – Releases CRH (rats) [53] and ACTH (humans and animals) [54]
  8. CCK – Increases CRH, ACTH, and cortisol (humans) [55, 56]
  9. VIP – Raises CRH [57]
  10. Angiotensin II/ACE – Stimulates the HPA axis (humans) [58, 59]

Certain Peptides Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Orexins – Increase CRH and ACTH (humans and animals) [60]
  2. Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) – Stimulates the HPA axis (rats) [39]
  3. BDNF – Stimulates the HPA axis (rats) [49]

Certain Neurotransmitters Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Dopamine (D1/D2) – Increases CRH in cells [61] – Contradictory (mice) [62].
  2. Serotonin (specifically 5-HT2CRs) – Serotonin increased CRH and its neuronal activity and CRH (and corticosterone release) (rats) [6364]
  3. Acetylcholine [20] Chronic SSRI usage increases CRH, but decreases ACTH and therefore cortisol [65], but fluoxetine (a specific SSRI), on the other hand, decreases CRH (rats) [66].
  4. Noradrenaline – Increases CRH (rats) [67]
  5. Glutamate – Activates the HPA axis (rats) [68]

Environmental Factors Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Noise – Induces an HPA axis response (rats) [69]
  2. Sun/UVB (locally, on the skin) – Induces skin cells to produce and release CRH through the PKA pathway [70]
  3. Light – Enhances stress response [51, 71]
  4. Smells, such as pheromones – stimulates the hypothalamus and stress response [51]
  5. Cold [72] or Hot [73] temperatures (humans). Chronic cold increases CRH receptors, caused by dopamine (rats) [74]
  6. EMFs – Raise stress levels (rats) [75]
  7. High altitudes – Causes low oxygen (hypoxia), increasing our stress response (rat, cellular, humans) [76]

Toxicity Factors Can Raise Your Stress Response

  1. Heavy metals Cadmium, but likely many others (humans) [77]
  2. Mercury in fish (humans) [78]
  3. PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) [79]

Internal Psychological Chatter?

There are some attitudinal factors that may increase the stress response, but they don’t have scientific references. So here’s a list of things to watch out for if your nervous system is overactive.

Control Issues

  • Trying to control an outcome

Self Improvement

  • Trying to change yourself
  • Trying to exert your will power
  • Trying to increase your motivation
  • Making yourself do something you don’t want to
  • Making goals
  • Having ambitions or trying to get somewhere


  • Having a strong attachment – to an idea, object, person, etc…
  • Thinking about the past or future
  • Taking life too seriously


  • Feeling fearful
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling angry
  • Feeling frustrated
  • Feeling guilty
  • Feeling jealous
  • Feeling hateful
  • Feeling embarrassed
  • Feeling rejected 

Some genes, such as MTHFR, Cannabinoid genes (CNR1), COMT, and MAOA can change the way stress affects us.

Irregular Cortisol Levels?

LabTestAnalyzer helps you make sense of your lab results. It informs you which labs are not in the optimal range and gives you guidance about how to get them to optimal. It also allows you to track your labs over time. No need to do thousands of hours of research on what to make of your lab tests.

Want Better Ways to Improve Your Mood?

If you’re interested in natural and targeted ways of improving your mood, we recommend checking out SelfDecode’s Mood DNA Wellness Report. It gives genetic-based diet, lifestyle and supplement tips that can help improve your mood. The recommendations are personalized based on your genes.

This post contains links from our sister companies, SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer. The proceeds from your purchase of these products are reinvested into our research and development, in order to serve you better. Thank you for your support.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen won the genetic lottery of bad genes. As a kid, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, and other issues that were poorly understood in both conventional and alternative medicine.Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a journey of self-experimentation and self-learning to improve his health--something that has since become known as “biohacking”. With thousands of experiments and pubmed articles under his belt, Joe founded SelfHacked, the resource that was missing when he needed it. SelfHacked now gets millions of monthly readers.Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, author and speaker. He is the CEO of SelfHacked, SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer.His mission is to help people gain access to the most up-to-date, unbiased, and science-based ways to optimize their health.
Joe has been studying health sciences for 17 years and has read over 30,000 PubMed articles. He's given consultations to over 1000 people who have sought his health advice. After completing the pre-med requirements at university, he founded SelfHacked because he wanted to make a big impact in improving global health. He's written hundreds of science posts, multiple books on improving health, and speaks at various health conferences. He's keen on building a brain-trust of top scientists who will improve the level of accuracy of health content on the web. He's also founded SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer, popular genetic and lab software tools to improve health.

Click here to subscribe


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars
(5 votes, average: 4.40 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.