Causes Of High Cortisol
There are two main causes of high cortisol: Chronic stress and more rarely, Cushings disease. Cushings disease is caused by a hormone-secreting tumor on the adrenal gland which results in the release more cortisol than required.
Living with chronic stress also leads to high cortisol because the release of cortisol is a natural response from the body when it is stressed. The hypothalamicpituitary-adrenal axis is what regulates the timely release of cortisol during acute stress, but when stress becomes chronic the feedback from the HPA becomes damaged and so cortisol continues to be released.
Conditions that can contribute to chronic stress and high cortisol include:
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Anorexia nervosa
What Happens When Cortisol Levels Are Too High
Dr. Mitchell tells us, “Cortisol is a stress hormone released in response to physical or emotional stress. It has many essential functions, including regulating blood pressure and heart rate, increasing blood sugar levels, and reducing inflammation. Cortisol also plays a role in wound healing. When the body is injured, cortisol helps increase blood flow to the injury site and promotes the formation of new blood vessels. This helps to reduce bleeding and speed up the healing process. In addition, cortisol helps to minimize the chances of infection by suppressing the immune system. While cortisol is essential for maintaining health, it can also have adverse effects when present at high levels. For example, high cortisol levels can suppress the immune system, increase blood sugar levels, and contribute to weight gain. Therefore, it is essential to keep cortisol levels in balance.”6254a4d1642c605c54bf1cab17d50f1e
What Are Normal Cortisol Levels
The level of cortisol in your blood, urine and saliva normally peaks in the early morning and declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest level around midnight. This pattern can change if you work a night shift and sleep at different times of the day.
For most tests that measure cortisol levels in your blood, the normal ranges are:
- 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.: 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter .
- Around 4 p.m.: 3 to 10 mcg/dL.
Normal ranges can vary from lab to lab, time to time and person to person. If you need to get a cortisol level test, your healthcare provider will interpret your results and let you know if you need to get further testing.
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The #1 Sign Your Cortisol Levels Are Way Too High
Cortisol isn’t something most of us think about, but it has several roles that help keep you healthy like regulating your blood pressure and blood sugar, managing your sleep cycle, controlling inflammation and handling stress. Cortisol plays an important part in your overall well-being, “however, when cortisol levels become too high, it can lead to serious health problems,” Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies tells Eat This, Not That! Health. Your body will send off warning signals when your cortisol levels are too high and Dr. Mitchell shares what signs to watch out for. Read onand to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
What Is Cortisol And Why Should You Care
In general, cortisol levels range between 10-20 milligrams per deciliter throughout the day, but peak in the afternoon. When cortisol levels are at their peak, they can reach 3 to 10 mcg/dL.Cortisol levels can vary depending on factors such as stress, anxiety, and illness. If you have an unusual level of cortisol, consult with your doctor.
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What’s Considered Too High
According to Dr Mitchell, “Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. It is released into the bloodstream and has several vital functions, such as regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Cortisol levels can be measured using a blood test, and the results are typically reported as nanomoles per liter .The normal range for cortisol varies depending on the time of day, but it is generally between 5 and 25 nmol/L. A level above 25 nmol/L is considered high, and levels above 50 nmol/L may indicate Cushing’s disease. However, it is essential to note that cortisol levels can be affected by factors such as exercise, so a single high reading does not necessarily mean a problem. If cortisol levels are consistently elevated, it is advisable to see a doctor for further testing.”
Keep Your Sugar Levels Stable
Keep a balanced diet, rich in nutritious food, and avoid fizzy and sugary drinks, and processed and frozen foods. Eat fruit daily, and prepare complete meals comprised of carbohydrates, protein, and fiber, in order to control your sugar levels.
Its also recommended that you take supplements like vitamin B, calcium, magnesium, chromium, zinc, vitamin C, and alpha-lipoic acid .
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How To Take Action
Given the dramatic increase in stress in recent years, it is crucial that we all find healthy ways to cope with and manage the stress in our lives, says Dr. Mawri. Fortunately there are ways to do so and develop healthy behaviors that improve heart health. He shares these tips from the American Heart Association:
- If you are often stressed, learn the cause and constructive ways to deal with it.
- Slow down and plan ahead to avoid feeling rushed.
- Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.
- Let go of worry and take breaks.
- Make time to connect with friends and family and maintain a social support system.
- Become more organized to stay on top of important tasks.
- Practice giving back by volunteering and helping others.
- Get exercise every day to relieve mental and physical tension.
- Give up bad habits like excess alcohol, tobacco, and too much caffeine.
- Lean into things that you can change, like a new skill or working towards a particular goal.
- Learn to say no to things that are not a high priority.
- Ask for help when you need it.
If you have more stress than you can handle on your own, its a good idea to seek stress management counseling or speak to a mental health professional, Dr. Mawri recommends.
Be aware of your own stress levels and takes steps to manage your stress. Simple practices such as getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating, deep breathing techniques and scheduling leisure activities are a good start.
How To Lower Cortisol
Reducing your cortisol level is a function of reducing your stress. If youre unable to remove stressful elements from your life, then double up on those practices that help you rise above the stresses, including:
- Breathing exercises are proven to calm chemistry, reduce heart rate, and relax muscles throughout the body.
- Meditation centers the mind on its own personal compass and puts the rest of the world into context and proportion from there. Try it.
- Walking is one of the most underrated practices. In addition to the gentle increase in metabolism, the scenery provides a distraction from daily nuisances and annoyances.
- Connect with family and friends and find someone you can talk to about anything. This comradery reminds you that you arent alone and others have shared your stresses before.
- Sleep better by focusing on creating and protecting a sleep routine with consistent bedtimes and rising times.
There is a lot to think about we understand. If you have questions about how to lower cortisol or any of the conditions discussed here, connecting with a doctor in a discrete setting has never been easier.
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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.
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
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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
High Cortisol Levels Takeaway
High cortisol levels may have a debilitating effect on your health. But by taking steps to reduce your cortisol levels, you may promote adrenal health and reduce many of these issues or even reverse them.
If you suffer from high cortisol, here are a few things you can do to help alleviate the situation.
- Ask your healthcare provider about doing tests to determine the root cause.
- Consider making dietary changes, reducing stress, and doing some low-level or moderate exercise.
- Explore the use of natural supplements with your healthcare provider.
If you would like to know more about or need assistance with high cortisol levels, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free* no-obligation phone consultation at +1 571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by .
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.
Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels
According to research done by the Genetics Learning Science Center, the long-term danger of having high cortisol is that it activates the fight-or-flight response, which temporarily shuts down normal reproductive, digestive and immune functions. The body targets these systems for shutdown because it doesnt need them for immediate survival.
Sensory nerve cells pass the perception of a threat, or stress, from the environment to the hypothalamus in the brain. This signals the pituitary and primary adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. If this cycle goes on for too long, someone becomes more susceptible to all sorts of illnesses, infections and hormonal problems.
Some clues that may signal youre living with high cortisol levels include:
- weight gain, especially around the abdomen/stomach
- a puffy, flushed face
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S To Get Your Cortisol Levels Under Control & Turn Down The Stress
Do you find yourself overly stressed, tired and even notice weight gain despite not changing your diet or workout frequency? Your cortisol levels may be out of whack. More specifically, they may be too high.
Cortisol is often called the primary stress hormone because its one of the main hormones we release when were under any sort of pressure and our evolutionary-based fight or flight response kicks into gear. Although most think of cortisol as a bad thing such as contributing to acne, weight gain or high blood pressure theres actually a lot more to cortisol levels than just our stress response and its unwanted symptoms. We need it to live.
While producing cortisol is a necessity for life and helps keep us motivated, awake and responsive to our environment, maintaining abnormally high circulating cortisol levels can become dangerous and contribute to long-term problems. Long-term use of corticosteroids and chronic stress are two of the biggest contributors to high cortisol. Chronic, high cortisol production is tied to symptoms and ailments including weight gain, anxiety, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and fertility problems, in addition to many other problems.
The good news is there are many natural ways to get your cortisol levels in check. For instance, adaptogen herbs are known to lower cortisol, and thats just the tip of the iceberg. Read on for more ways to lower high cortisol levels naturally.
How To Know If Your Cortisol Levels Is Too High
Unfortunately standard tests of adrenal function arent very helpful. If your primary care practitioner calls for a typical laboratory cortisol test, it will be difficult to see anything more than the most severe cases of adrenal dysfunction, such as Addisons disease or Cushings syndrome.
We recommend finding a practitioner who is willing to do salivary cortisol testing, which measures cortisol levels and a hormone called DHEA throughout the day.
A lab test isnt necessary to determine if you have adrenal fatigue or high cortisol, however. You can simply check in with how you feel. If your energy level is verylow in the morning but seems to increase right around the time everyone else is getting ready for bed, your cortisol cycle is probably out of whack. Its a good indication that you will reap huge benefits by taking steps to rebalance your adrenal glands.
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What Causes Low Cortisol Levels
Low cortisol levels manifest as adrenal insufficiency, of which there are three types:
- Primary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the body mistakenly attacks the adrenal cortex, causing autoimmune adrenalitis.
- Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland fails to produce enough adrenocorticotropic hormone to stimulate cortisol production.
- Tertiary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the hypothalamus fails to produce enough corticotropin-releasing hormone to activate ACTH synthesis.
Low cortisol levels manifest as adrenal insufficiency, of which there are three types. Primary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the body mistakenly attacks the adrenal cortex, causing autoimmune adrenalitis. Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland fails to produce enough adrenocorticotropic hormone to stimulate cortisol production. Tertiary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the hypothalamus fails to produce enough corticotropin-releasing hormone to activate ACTH synthesis.
Feeling Tired But Wired
“The classic sign of high cortisol is feeling tired but wired,” Dr. Gottfried says. If you feel exhausted but can’t sleep for example, that’s what she’s talking about. “This is usually accompanied by a symptom of fatigue throughout the day,” she adds. Dr. Gottfried previously explained to Well+Good that cortisol levels should bottom out around midnight, while you’re asleep. If your cortisol levels are still high while you’re sleeping, your body cant do the healing it needs,” she says. “As a result, you wake up feeling fatigued, like you want coffeewhich raises cortisoland perhaps you have trouble recovering from exercise. The cruel joke of it is that she says that not getting consistently good sleepwhich she describes as between seven to eight-and-a-half hours a nightcan contribute to high cortisol levels. It’s a vicious cycle.
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