What Causes High Cortisol Levels
Following are some of the important causes of high cortisol
Prolonged stress may lead to high levels of cortisol. Cortisol is known to shut off the functions that are considered non-essential. Thus, in certain cases, it creates havoc on various body functions.
Cortisol levels may be increased due to the side effects of medications. Contraceptive increases the level of cortisol. Steroids such as dexamethasone, prednisone, and methylprednisolone.
Increased estrogen levels may lead to increased cortisol. The estrogen level gets increased during pregnancy or as a part of treatment known as hormonal replacement therapy.
Adrenal Gland Tumors
Increased cortisol levels may also be due to tumors, whether malignant or benign, in the adrenal gland. This may lead to Cushing syndrome.
Pituitary gland disorders: The pituitary gland releases various hormones that control the secretion of other hormones. Increased levels of the pituitary hormone due to various disorders may lead to increased secretion of cortisol from the adrenal gland.
Exercise But Avoid Overdoing It
There is a delicate balance between exercise and cortisol levels. Moderate or vigorous exercise regularly and increasing daily movement can help to improve emotional resilience which can, in turn, reduce cortisol levels .However, engaging in repeated bouts of high-intensity activity with little to no recovery time in between can have the opposite effect and raise cortisol levels. While exercise is a powerful tool in stress management, it is important to prioritize recovery as well .
When To See A Doctor
If you are experiencing symptoms of Addisons disease or Cushings syndrome or otherwise suspect that your cortisol level is too high or too low, make an appointment with your primary care doctor and/or an endocrinologist for diagnosis.
The doctor can order tests to measure the level of cortisol in your urine, blood, or saliva. The urine test is often done over the course of a full 24 hours , since cortisol levels naturally vary throughout the day.
Depending on the results of the cortisol tests, your doctor might order further testing or imaging or start you on treatments to get your cortisol levels back to normal.
The Mayo Clinic. Chronic Stress Puts Your Health At Risk. July 8, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
You and Your Hormones: An Education Resource from the Society for Endocrinology. Cortisol. Last reviewed January 2019. Accessed January 5, 2022.
Hormone Health Network . What Is Cortisol? Last updated November 2018. Accessed January 5, 2022.
Hormone Health Network . Cushing Syndrome. Last updated October 2019. Accessed January 5, 2022.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases . Cushing’s Syndrome. Last reviewed May 2018. Accessed January 5, 2022.
National Library of Medicine , MedlinePlus. Cortisol Test. Accessed January 5, 2022.
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Moderate Exercise To Lower Cortisol
Enjoying regular exercise can help to reduce your cortisol levels because it helps to cope with stress better.
The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation reported that moderate, low-intensity exercise has a positive effect on cortisol levels. However, intensive exercise increases cortisol secretion in the body.
Interestingly, sweating after exercise can cause high concentrations of cortisol in the body and these concentrations are detected in hair. Doctors can test hair samples for cortisol to help diagnose conditions related to chronic stress.
Sleep Hygiene Tips For Lower Cortisol Levels
- Go to bed at a regular time each night.
- Set an alarm to get you up at the same time each morning.
- Wash your bedding and night clothes regularly.
- Keep distractions, like noise, tv, and phones, to a minimum before bed.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
- Dont exercise in the evening.
- Avoid bright lights and screens before bed.
FACTShift work from early adulthood is associated with increased, prolonged cortisol levels and a higher body mass index .
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What Does High Cortisol Mean
Cortisol is a hormone mainly secreted inside the human body by adrenal glands. The main function of cortisol is to help the body in responding to stressful conditions. Apart from helping in stressful conditions, cortisol also plays an important role in various body functions. These include immunity modulation, reducing inflammation, maintaining blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, and improving memory.
The normal level of cortisol depends upon various factors including the time of measurement, age, sex, type of sample, whether blood or urine, and the analytical method used to determine the levels of cortisol.
The value of cortisol changes according to the circadian rhythm. The level of cortisol is highest in the morning and lowest at night. The normal level of cortisol is 10 to 20 mcg/dL between 6:00 am to 8:00 am while the value at 4:00 pm is approximately 3 to 10 mcg/dL.
When the person wakes up with a normal or increased level which does not drop down by evening or when the person goes to bed indicates high cortisol levels. Further tests are done to confirm the cause of the increased level of cortisol.
Who Is More Likely To Have Cushings Syndrome
Cushings syndrome most often affects adults, usually aged 30 to 50,1 but can also occur in children. Cushings syndrome affects about three times as many women as men.2 In people who have type 2 diabetes and blood glucose levels that stay too high over time, along with high blood pressure, Cushings syndrome may be the cause. People who take medicines called glucocorticoids, which are similar to cortisol, also can develop Cushings syndrome. This type of Cushings syndrome is called exogenous. More than 10 million Americans take glucocorticoids each year,3 but its not known how many of them develop Cushings syndrome.
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Learn To Recognize Stressful Thinking
Paying attention to stressful thoughts may help you reduce them.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts, accepting them without judgment or resistance, and allowing yourself the ability to process them .
Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate, and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins .
Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. For example, a study involving 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response (
Tending to your own happiness can help keep cortisol down. If youre feeling stressed, try listening to music or making yourself laugh.
What Causes Low Levels Of Cortisol
Having lower-than-normal cortisol levels is considered adrenal insufficiency. There are two types of adrenal insufficiency: primary and secondary. The causes of adrenal insufficiency include:
- Primary adrenal insufficiency: Primary adrenal insufficiency is most commonly caused by an autoimmune reaction in which your immune system attacks healthy cells in your adrenal glands for no known reason. This is called Addisons disease. Your adrenal glands can also become damaged from an infection or blood loss to the tissues . All of these situations limit cortisol production.
- Secondary adrenal insufficiency: If you have an underactive pituitary gland or a pituitary tumor, it can limit ACTH production. ACTH signals your adrenal glands to make cortisol, so limited ACTH results in limited cortisol production.
You can also have lower-than-normal cortisol levels after stopping treatment with corticosteroid medications, especially if you stop taking them very quickly after a long period of use.
What are the symptoms of low cortisol levels?
Symptoms of lower-than-normal cortisol levels, or adrenal insufficiency, include:
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Lower Cortisol Levels With Physical Exercise
Regular physical exercise is a well-known brain enhancer that improves mental health and cognitive functions while protecting the brain from the effects of aging.
Getting regular exercise will also enable you to relax more easily.
One of the ways it does this is by reducing cortisol.
You dont need to exercise strenuously to experience stress reduction.
In fact, exercising too much or too hard actually increases cortisol.
Running a marathon, for example, can initiate the stress response since your brain gets the message that you are fleeing from danger.
Twenty to thirty minutes of light aerobic activity like walking or biking is ideal for most people.
Mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are also excellent for stress relief.
Start A Healthy Exercise Habit
Research shows that acute aerobic exercise reduces the cortisol stress response in the brain and helps improve cortisol levels. This is one of many scientific explanations for why exercise helps relieve stress and promotes overall health in the mind and body. Start a healthy habit of moving your body in a way that you enjoythrough dance, jogging, lifting, yoga, or some other practice. Still, be careful not to overdo it. Overly intense exercise without adequate nutrition and recovery time can actually result in elevated cortisol in the body.
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Tend To Your Spirituality
If you consider yourself spiritual, developing your faith can also help improve cortisol levels.
Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors such as illness (
If you do not consider yourself spiritual, these benefits may also be available through meditation, developing a social support group, and performing acts of kindness .
For those with spiritual inclinations, developing faith and participating in prayer can help manage cortisol. Whether youre spiritual or not, performing acts of kindness can also improve your cortisol levels.
Get The Right Amount Of Sleep
Prioritizing your sleep may be an effective way to reduce cortisol levels. Chronic sleep issues such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, or shift work have been associated with higher cortisol .
One review of 28 studies in shift workers found that cortisol levels were higher in workers who slept during the day rather than at night .
Those on rotating shifts have been linked with poorer health outcomes, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and worsened mental health (
Practicing good sleep hygiene can help to keep cortisol in a normal rhythm. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine 6 hours before bed, and staying off your cell phone right before bed are effective strategies.
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How To Test Your Cortisol Levels
A blood, saliva, or urine test can be done to measure your cortisol levels. Depending on the cause, your GP might sometimes arrange a cortisol test, most commonly using a blood test.
Cortisol blood test
A cortisol blood test is usually done in the morning when your cortisol levels tend to be at their highest. Cortisol levels tend to fall as the day goes on, reaching their lowest point at night before bed.
Cortisol urine test
A cortisol urine test involves collecting all of your urine over the course of a day. This can help to show how your cortisol levels change throughout the day.
Are There Herbs Or Supplements To Reduce Cortisol
The supplement aisle at the natural foods store is hardly a one-way ticket to a stress-free life. But some items may help keep cortisol levels in a healthy range, Dr. Lin says. Research suggests these herbs and natural supplements might lower stress, anxiety and/or cortisol levels:
While some herbs might help lower cortisol levels naturally, you dont want to swallow everything in sight, Dr. Lin says. Teas like lemon balm and chamomile are quite safe. But if youre thinking about trying herbs in supplement form, talk to a trained provider first.
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What Does Cortisol Do To My Body
Almost all tissues in your body have glucocorticoid receptors. Because of this, cortisol can affect nearly every organ system in your body, including:
- Integumentary system .
More specifically, cortisol affects your body in the following ways:
Optimum cortisol levels are necessary for life and for maintaining several bodily functions. If you have consistently high or low cortisol levels, it can have negative impacts on your overall health.
Cortisol Testing: What You Need To Know
When trying to improve your stress response and lower your cortisol levels, it’s imperative to recognize what’s making you stressed in the first place and try to get that under control. That being said, tests can also be a helpful way to evaluate the severity and cause of a cortisol imbalance.
Cortisol testing is ideally done through methods that measure it unbound, such as in the saliva or dried urine. Both can be done at different times throughout the day, providing a more accurate picture of someone’s stress response and how it relates to an optimal cortisol curve of highest in the morning and lowest in the evening. Serum testing, on the other hand, measures both bound and unbound but may be complicated with the stress of needles, perhaps leading to false elevation.
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Fight Or Flight Response
Some physical effects of cortisol related to the fight or flight response include:
Triggering a release of glucose to supply immediate energy to your large muscles.
Inhibiting production and digestion so glucose will be available and not stored.
Narrowing the arteries so blood pumps harder and faster to the heart and large muscles.
What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels
Regular and prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your body. Over time this can cause Cushings syndrome. Some of the most common signs of high cortisol levels include:
- weight gain particularly around your stomach, upper back, and face
- bruising and slow wound healing
- difficulty concentrating
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What Supplements Can Help Improve Cortisol Levels
- Ashwagandha: This ancient herbal supplement may improve resistance to stress and reduce cortisol levels when taken daily.
- Rhodiola: This adaptogen has been used for centuries to treat anxiety and fatigue. Itâs thought to help users better respond to stressful situations.
- Lemon balm: While more research is needed, some studies indicate that lemon balm can alleviate stress and anxiety while boosting cognitive function.
- Chamomile: Many people drink chamomile tea before bedtime for its calming, gently sedative properties.
First Off What Even Is Cortisol
Cortisol is your main stress hormone, which helps the body regulate its response to any kind of stress, whether its physiological, emotional, or traumatic, says Suneet Singh, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and medical director at CareHive Health in Austin, Texas. Its also a steroid hormone that is produced and released by the adrenal glands.
When the body is under stress, cortisol levels are increased to help deal with the underlying problem, he explains.
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According to Dr. Singh, cortisol helps the body regulate several important factors and potential issues, including:
- Inflammation levels
How Can You Relieve Stress Naturally
For starters, eating a balanced diet with healthy fats, staying well hydrated by drinking water, limiting caffeine intake, getting regular exercise, and practicing yoga and meditation are good practices for a healthy lifestyle, which can help relieve stress naturally. Sleep also plays an important role aiming for 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep every night is essential to alleviate stress. Certain supplements can also help to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress.
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These negative effects also often come with their own consequences. For example, increased abdominal fat is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat include an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, higher levels of bad cholesterol , and lower levels of good cholesterol .
Cortisol is important for your body to function normally, but too much cortisol can be bad for your health.
Chronic high cortisol levels can also lead to a condition known as Cushing syndrome. Causes can include adrenal tumors or the prolonged use of glucocorticoids. Symptoms of Cushing syndrome can also include high blood sugars with increased thirst and urination, osteoporosis, depression, and more frequent infections.
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Other Ways To Lower High Cortisol Levels
Depending on the underlying cause of increased levels of cortisol, it may not be possible to decrease cortisol naturally.
If you show signs of having excess cortisol, your doctor will run various tests to check for Cushings syndrome.
Some conventional methods to treat an overproduction of cortisol can include any of the following depending on your condition:
- Lowering your corticosteroid medication
- Surgery to remove tumors that cause high ACTH or elevated cortisol levels
- Medications to help regulate and normalize cortisol secretion
High Cortisol Testing And Diagnoses
Your doctor can order a number of tests to determine if you have abnormally high cortisol levels. Both blood and urine testing help reveal a problem, but a 24-hour urine test is used more often than a cortisol blood test to diagnose Cushings disease or syndrome.
The cortisol values listed below, which can be obtained from a blood test, serve as a reference range for whats considered normal. Cortisol levels above this normal range are considered high and can be risky or problematic.
But keep in mind that values differ depending on time of day, age and the type of cortisol test preformed. Saliva tests are now also recommended and appear to be as reliable as a blood sample. Additionally, an overnight dexamethasone suppression test may also be recommended, and it involves taking a dose of a corticosteroid medicine called dexamethasone to determine how blood cortisol is affected.
Because of this, your doctor will always need to evaluate your results in light of your specific symptoms and medical history.
- Normal cortisol ranges for adults and children in the morning are between five to 23 micrograms per deciliter or 138 to 635 nanomoles per liter
- Normal cortisol ranges for adults and children in the afternoon are between three to 16 mcg/dL or 83 to 441 nmol/L
- Normal cortisol for a newborn baby is between two to 11 mcg/dL or 55 to 304 nmol/L
Final Thoughts on Cortisol Levels
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