High Cortisol Symptoms: What Do They Mean
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because of its role in the bodys stress response. But cortisol is about more than just stress.
This steroid hormone is made in the adrenal glands. Most of the cells in our bodies have cortisol receptors that use cortisol for a variety of functions, including
- blood sugar regulation
- metabolism regulation
- memory formulation
Cortisol is important for your health, but too much of it can wreak havoc on your body and cause a number of unwanted symptoms.
High cortisol can cause a number of symptoms throughout your body. Symptoms can vary depending on whats causing the increase in your cortisol levels.
General signs and symptoms of too much cortisol include:
- weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- weight gain and rounding of the face
Cardiovascular And Metabolic Complications
NCCAH is associated with increased cardiovascular and metabolic morbidity in adulthood . Both glucocorticoid treatment and androgen excess are important factors in this respect . Supraphysiological glucocorticoid dosages are associated with a higher prevalence of obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and hypertension, which are known risk factors for cardiovascular disease . On the other hand, untreated or undertreated 21OHD patients suffer from androgen excess which can also be unfavorable for the cardiovascular and metabolic risk profile . In this paragraph, different cardiovascular and metabolic complications and risk factors in NCCAH patients will be discussed.
Whether the increased insulin resistance also leads to a higher incidence of diabetes mellitus type II was unknown for a long time, because only a few patients were older than 50 years old in the described studies and diabetes usually presents later in life. Falhammar et al. did not report higher incidences of diabetes in one study but sample sizes were small and the oldest included patient was 67 years old. In a later study, Falhammar et al. found a higher prevalence of diabetes in a cohort of 75 treated NCCAH patients compared to age- and sex-matched controls.
Causes Of High Cortisol Levels
Wondering what underlying conditions could be contributing to your high cortisol levels? Cortisol tends to go up as perceived stress goes up, so anything that triggers a negative mind states things like anxiety, worry, anger or frustration contributes to high cortisol levels. Medication use, inflammation, poor sleep and a poor diet can also trigger high cortisol levels by altering hormonal balances and negatively affecting the immune system.
Corticosteroid medications like hydrocortisone, prednisone pills or other medications used to treat inflammatory-related diseases or symptoms are common causes of high cortisol levels. Aside from corticosteroids, other major factors contributing to higher than usual cortisol production include:
- recent surgery, illness, injury or whole-body infections
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What Are The Symptoms Of Cushings Syndrome
Cushings syndrome has some unique symptoms as well as some that could point towards a variety of other syndromes. Not everyone has the same symptoms. Possible symptoms include:
Rapid weight gain in the face , abdomen, the back of the neck and chest.
- A red, round face.
- Weak muscles and thinner arms and legs.
- Libido changes and erectile dysfunction.
- Stunted growth in children.
What Happens If I Have Too Little Cortisol
Too little cortisol may be due to a problem in the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland . The onset of symptoms is often very gradual. Symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness , weight loss, muscle weakness, mood changes and the darkening of regions of the skin. Without treatment, this is a potentially life-threatening condition.
Urgent assessment by a specialist hormone doctor called an endocrinologist is required when a diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome or Addison’s disease is suspected.
Last reviewed: Jan 2019
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The Implications Of Untimely High Cortisol Levels
Untimely high cortisol levels donât just affect your sleep and body clock they impoverish your overall health and wellness.
Weâve mentioned how the SCN functions as a master clock that the cortisol rhythm ticks to. But the SCN doesnât only control the circadian rhythm for cortisol secretion, nor does the stress hormone only interact with the central circadian clock.
Aside from the master clock, peripheral clocks are present across all organs and tissues in your body â think the liver, gut, pancreas, kidney, and muscles. These clocks fall under the influence of the SCN, with cortisol as the key metabolic signaller. Because cortisol receptors are found in almost every tissue, the hormone can directly interact and synchronize these peripheral clocks with the SCN.
As the earlier 2021 review explains, âchanges in the cortisol rhythm may alter the timing and coordination of metabolic processes throughout the body.â In fact, the same review warns that an excessive amount of cortisol paves the foundation for increased insulin resistance that may heighten the odds of high blood sugar levels over time. A cortisol overload also diminishes physical performance and neurocognitive functioning.
But the repercussions of an out-of-tune cortisol rhythm donât stop here. As you will remember, untimely high cortisol levels often trap you in the endless loops of sleep loss and chronic stress, each with its own ill effects.
Get Your Cortisol Rhythm Back On Track
High cortisol levels may not necessarily be a bad thing. Itâs only when cortisol production remains high after the early morning spike that you need to watch out for.
Various factors can cause high cortisol levels. But the biggest culprits on the list are sleep insufficiency, chronic stress, circadian misalignment, high-intensity exercise or overtraining and certain medical conditions like Cushingâs disease.
Before you consult your primary doctor, the RISE app is worth a try to keep your sleep debt low, your stress levels in check, and your body clock aligned.
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Enjoy A Healthy Diet To Lower Cortisol Levels
Foods that can increase cortisol are refined sugars, unhealthy carbs, and saturated fats. Healthy food choices such as increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables help balance your hormones better.
The journal Advances in Nutrition reported that a poor diet can affect cortisol concentrations. This can have an impact on cognitive function and affect the HPA axis. Studies have shown that supplements such as magnesium can help to decrease the concentration of cortisol if its elevated.
If you have type 2 diabetes and show signs of excess cortisol, then enjoying a healthy diet is essential to control your symptoms.
As well as eating the right foods to help control cortisol, it is essential to drink plenty of fluids. Researchers have found that your levels of hydration can affect cortisol. When the body is dehydrated, cortisol levels increase.
Deal With Stress And Anxiety And Laugh More
Finding strategies to cope with stress can help to bring down cortisol to normal levels and prevent its side effects.
Studies have found a direct link between chronic stress and increases in morning cortisol levels. Obviously, keeping stress levels manageable will also prevent cortisol levels from rising and impacting on your health.
One study found that laughter can have a positive impact on elevated cortisol levels. Scientists found that laughing more could be a positive lifestyle change to help reduce stress and keep cortisol levels down.
You may also find it helpful to know what to do to boost your mood as that can also help regulate cortisol levels.
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How Does My Body Control Cortisol Levels
Your body has an elaborate system to regulate your cortisol levels.
Your hypothalamus, a small area of your brain involved in hormonal regulation, and your pituitary gland, a tiny gland located below your brain, regulate the production of cortisol in your adrenal glands. When the levels of cortisol in your blood fall, your hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone , which directs your pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone . ACTH then stimulates your adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.
In order to have optimal levels of cortisol in your body, your hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands must all be functioning properly.
Maintaining A Good Bedtime Routine
A good bedtime routine can be a useful tool for getting longer and higher-quality sleep. This may involve a combination of relaxing activities that help a person unwind, such as:
- bathing or showering
- reading a book or audiobook
People should get into the habit of turning off all screens and relaxing before heading to bed. For example, it may help to turn off phones and any other potential distractions.
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Cortisol And Stress: The Basics
Cortisol is one of several hormones the body produces naturally. Cortisol levels do go up when youre stressed. But it doesnt deserve its bad rap.
Cortisol supports overall health, Dr. Lin says. It helps us wake up, gives us energy during the day and lowers at night to help us sleep and rest.
The problem arises when chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high for the long haul. High cortisol levels over weeks or months can lead to inflammation and a host of mental and physical health problems, from anxiety to weight gain to heart disease.
What Are The Treatments For High Cortisol
High cortisol levels, or Cushing’s syndrome, occur when the body is exposed to high levels of cortisol, according to the National Institutes of Health 12.Cushing’s syndrome can be caused by taking too much corticosteroid medication, or by tumors in the pituitary gland, adrenal glands or some other part of the body 12. Patients with high cortisol levels may experience weight gain, acne, easy bruising, backache, bone pain, impotence and fatigue. Thus, early treatment of high cortisol is necessary to improve symptoms.
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Phosphatidylserine As A Cortisol Supplement
The supplement phosphatidylserine has a positive effect on your mind and memory and can help reduce cortisol production.
One small study found that phosphatidylserine supplements of 600 mg a day can lower cortisol levels after intensive exercising. This can be an effective way for athletes or people who enjoy regular intensive exercise to avoid the effects of too much cortisol.
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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Consume Enough Food Protein And Water
Eating enough protein and calories, and drinking enough clean, filtered water is also critical to keeping stress hormone levels low.
Studies show that severely restricting calories elevates cortisol levels .
Restricting protein and depriving yourself of the amino acid leucine can also stimulate the stress response and increase stress hormones .
Lastly, make sure you stay hydrated and drink plenty of water.
Properly-hydrated runners have noticeably lower cortisol levels than dehydrated runners .
How Is Cushings Syndrome Treated
The type of treatment depends on the underlying cause of the high cortisol levels. If you use glucocorticoids, your healthcare provider will likely lower the dosage or prescribe a non-glucocorticoid medication. If a tumor is causing Cushings syndrome, it might need to be killed with radiation or removed surgically. Another option is for your healthcare provider to prescribe a medication such as ketoconazole that will slow down the production of cortisol. You may work with several healthcare providers to treat the tumor and Cushings syndrome symptoms.
If Cushings syndrome is properly treated, the disease may go away after two to 18 months. Be sure to stay in contact with your healthcare provider during that period.
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What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol
Following are some of the symptoms of high cortisol levels
Abnormal Blood Sugar
Cortisol infuses glucose into the body in case of stressful conditions. However, an increased level of cortisol continuously produces glucose. This results in an increased level of glucose in the blood. A high level of cortisol also reduces the sensitivity of cells towards insulin leading to a further increase in glucose levels.
A high level of cortisol causes weight gain, especially in the abdominal area. This may probably be due to two reasons. First, the fat cells present in the abdominal area have a high number of cortisol receptors as compared to fat cells in other areas. Further, glucose does not reach the cells and the body gets exhausted due to lack of energy. This may lead to increased hunger and sugar cravings.
High levels of cortisol narrow down the arteries. This leads to increased blood pressure and increased risk of plaque build-up. This may also cause damage to arteries.
When the body is under stress and cortisol is released, the digestive functions come to a halt until the stress gets over. However, prolonged high levels of cortisol may have a negative effect on the digestive disorder.
Various other symptoms of high cortisol levels include muscle weakness, slow healing, irritability, headache, thinning skin, irritability, acne, poor concentration, and fatigue.
Pituitary Adenomas Cushings Disease
Pituitary adenomas are benign tumors of the pituitary gland that secrete increased amounts of ACTH causing excessive cortisol production. Most patients have a single adenoma. First described in 1912 by neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, MD, in his book The Pituitary Body and Its Disorders, Cushings disease is the most common cause of spontaneous Cushings syndrome, accounting for 60-70 percent of all cases.
What Is Cushings Syndrome
Cushings syndrome is a disorder that occurs when your body makes too much of the hormone cortisol over a long period of time. Cortisol is sometimes called the stress hormone because it helps your body respond to stress. Cortisol also helps
- turn the food you eat into energy
The adrenal glands, two small glands on top of your kidneys, make cortisol.
Exercise But Not Too Much
Depending on the intensity of exercise, it can increase or decrease cortisol.
Intense exercise increases cortisol shortly afterward but will decrease a few hours later. This short-term increase helps coordinate growth of the body to meet the challenge. Additionally, the size of the cortisol response lessens with routine training .
Regular exercise has been shown in numerous studies to help improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and improve overall health, which can help lower cortisol over time .
Interestingly, regular exercise has also been associated with greater resilience to acute stress and may lower negative health effects associated with stress, such as high cortisol .
That said, overdoing it can have the opposite effect. Therefore, aim for around 150200 minutes of mostly low- to moderate-intensity exercise each week and allow yourself time to rest between workouts.
Exercising regularly can help you better manage stress and promote good health, which may help lower cortisol levels. That said, avoid overdoing it and aim for around 150200 minutes of low- to moderate- intensity exercise each week.
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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.
Holistic Approach To Lower Cortisol
Our team of functional medicine specialists have the knowledge and experience to help you lower your cortisol naturally while rebalancing your adrenal hormones. Our comprehensive treatment plan includes guidance for eating a healthy diet and some lifestyle modifications to lower your stress levels. These will help to help restore your health and for sustainable weight loss.
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What Drugs Lower High Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone made in the adrenal glands, two small organs sitting on top of each kidney. It is produced when the adrenals are stimulated by a hormone produced in the pituitary gland of the brain called adrenocorticotropic hormone .
Cortisol has many important functions throughout the body, ranging from anti-inflammatory effects to maintaining blood pressure and blood sugar. Cortisol levels that are too high produce a number of abnormalities known collectively as Cushing syndrome 3. Adrenal and pituitary tumors are common causes of high cortisol.
Drug treatment generally includes steroidogenesis inhibitors, neuromodulatory medications or cortisol receptor antagonists. The choice often depends on the cause of the elevated cortisol, as well as possible side effects. If a single medication is not adequate, combinations are often used.