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What Causes High Cortisol Levels In Females

What Is The Treatment For Overactive Adrenal Glands

How to determine if you have high cortisol levels

Treatment of overactive adrenal glands depends on the cause of the disease and source of the overproduction of cortisol.

Treatment may include surgical removal of growths or the adrenal gland itself. If external steroid use is determined to be the cause, gradual tapering and removal of the steroid may be recommended. Certain drugs that block the excessive production of certain hormones may also be administered.

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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Causes For Cortisol Changes

Blood levels of cortisol will naturally vary throughout the day. Generally, cortisol is higher in the morning , and then falls throughout the day . Appropriately nicknamed the stress hormone, cortisol is responsible for what scientists call the fight or flight response.

When cortisol levels spike, your body quickly increases blood sugar and blood pressure so your body has the energy to help you perform maybe thats running or jumping very fast. For thousands of years this hormone has been critical to helping protect humans from life-threatening situations.

A common example given is if you are being chased by a tiger. As you see the tiger your body senses danger and will release extra cortisol. This fight or flight response helps you to increase your focus, run faster, or leap further than you normally could in order to save yourself.

Even when we arent in the jungle being chased by an animal, we can experience an increase in cortisol levels due to perceived stress. This might be due to concerns at work, traffic, or worries about family events. Cortisol can also increase as a result of the stress of dealing with menopause symptoms.

While we all have high cortisol from time to time, having high cortisol over a long period of time can have lasting effects on your health. During menopause, women are under more stress than ever due to menopause symptoms like weight gain, hot flashes, night sweats, poor sleep and so many more.

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What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels

The signs of high cortisol levels usually include:

  • Weight gain or obesity
  • Sleep disturbances, like insomnia and middle-of-the-night awakenings

If you experience any of the above symptoms, your doctor may recommend specific blood tests like the dexamethasone suppression test for an in-depth diagnosis.

Other Effects Of Cortisol

Hormonal Belly Fat Workout

Some physical effects of cortisol unrelated to fight or flight include:

  • Controlling salt and water balance.

  • Acting as an anti-inflammatory.

  • Helping you wake up in the morning.

  • Regulating immune system function.

  • Regulating growth.

Cortisol release is controlled by a feedback system between your brains hypothalamus gland, the , and the adrenal gland, which together constitute the HPA axis . The hypothalamus and pituitary glands are responsible for ensuring that your blood contains the correct level of cortisol. If its too low or too high, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to make more or less.

Once a perceived threat has passed, your cortisol levels should return to normal, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to regulate and your digestion and other body systems to restart. However, in our stress-laden, fast-paced culture, cortisol can remain chronically high. This can cause a variety of health problems, as we discuss below.

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Tips For Controlling Cortisol And Stress

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the bodys relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place.

Many find the following strategies helpful in relaxing the body and mind, which assist the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels:

Getting more information on stress and resources to help you to manage it can help you to build habits that can help you to cope with stress once your stress response is triggered.

If youre more sensitive to stress, its especially important for you to learn stress management techniques and maintain a low-stress lifestyle. This is a great way to get cortisol secretion under control and maintain a healthy lifestyle at the same time.

Inability To Build Muscle

If youve experienced muscle weakness, and a seeming inability to gain strength, cortisol could be the culprit. Studies have shown that cortisol decreases the uptake of amino acids by muscle, inhibiting protein synthesis.5 The end result? There is no construction of new muscle.

As if that wasnt bad enough, cortisol also breaks down muscle, as well as the important connective tissue collagen. Collagen is also an integral component of bone and cartilage. As Savers know, building new muscle is essential, since the stress that muscles place on bone directly stimulates bone formation, per Wolffs Law.

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Risk Factors For Cushings Syndrome

A few inherited endocrine tumor syndromes increase a persons risk for pituitary and adrenal tumors, which can produce cortisol. The most common one is MEN1. Any patient with confirmed macronodular hyperplasia also should be tested. Genetic testing and counseling are recommended for people with more than one hormone-producing tumor. It should also be considered for patients who have multiple family members with these tumors.

Natural Ways To Lower Cortisol

All About Cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

In many cases, the brain and adrenal glands can regulate cortisol on their own. When stress has gone away, the body will stop making cortisol and the levels will return to normal.

However, people with chronic stress, certain medical conditions, or who take certain medications can have cortisol levels that are higher than usual. They may want to try some techniques for lowering cortisol, such as:

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Treatment Of Cushing’s Syndrome

Treatment of Cushings syndrome depends on the underlying cause of excess cortisol but may perhaps include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or the use of cortisol-inhibiting drugs. If the cause is iatrogenic, from long-term use of glucocorticoid hormones to treat another disorder, the physician will gradually reduce the dose of the externally administered steroid to the lowest dose adequate for control of that disorder. Once control is established, the dose of glucocorticoid hormones may be given on alternate days to lessen side effects for the patient.

What Does Low Cortisol Levels Mean

Low cortisol levels, also known as hypocortisolism, can be caused by multiple issues. Some factors that can contribute to low cortisol levels include Addisons disease, an autoimmune disorder which attacks the adrenal glands, impairing cortisol production, an underactive pituitary gland or adrenal fatigue. Over days and weeks of low cortisol levels, negative effects can be experienced as a side effect of these abnormal levels.

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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.

Treatment For Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Cortisol Review (UPDATE: Mar 2018)

Studies have revealed that women who eat balanced meals and partake in physical activity 3-5 times a week live longer, healthier lives because of it. If the long-term stress persists, over time, the adrenal glands can become overworked, which can present a whole new set of problems. Therefore, it is important to find ways to control chronic stress and arrest elevated cortisol levels before adrenal fatigue has a chance to develop and lead to adrenal exhaustion. Stress reduction techniques, consistent exercise, and dietary changes can assist in managing cortisol.

Yet, there may be times when this process cannot be arrested with diet and lifestyle changes alone. When imbalanced hormone levels need to be fully evaluated and corrected at their source, the highly trained bioidentical hormone doctors at BodyLogicMD can help. BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioners use state-of-the-art diagnostic testing to identify hormonal imbalances and use a combination of natural bioidentical hormone replacement therapy in conjunction with customized nutrition and fitness programs that meet the needs of each patient. Salivary cortisol testing and urine cortisol testing are both quick and easy and may very well provide the solution youve been looking for to overcome chronic stress and symptoms of cortisol imbalance.

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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

How Does Cortisol Affect The Menstrual Cycle

Stress can make your periods heavier, show up late, or stop altogether.

The main reason why stress affects your menstrual cycle is because of hormones. The release of stress hormones, or cortisol, can suppress normal levels of reproductive hormones, potentially leading to abnormal ovulation, anovulation, or amenorrhea.

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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.

What Is The Normal Cortisol Level For A Woman

Cortisol, T3/T4, GH, Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone, Oxytocin & Prolactin – Med-Surg

Normal values for a blood sample taken at 8 in the morning are 5 to 25 mcg/dL or 140 to 690 nmol/L.

Higher-than-normal cortisol levels may also be an indicator of:

  • Tumor or excess growth of the pituitary gland
  • Tumor in your adrenal gland
  • Tumors elsewhere in your body that are involved in cortisol production

Lower-than-normal cortisol levels may indicate that:

  • Addisons disease

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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.

Estrogen Levels

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.

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.

More on this topic

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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How To Prevent Future Health Issues

Although decreasing your stress levels may feel impossible some days, you can still manage the effects of elevated cortisol. To begin with, practicing relaxation through mindfulness, meditation, yoga or deep breathing can help bring the production of this hormone back down to normal levels.

Youll also prevent the excess storage of empty calories by ensuring that you consume a diet high in quality foods. Even though your body may be craving a quick fix, aim to eat mostly whole, plant-based foods. Of course, making the decision to eat right isnt always easy, but its worth it. By monitoring your diet, the calories you consume will be turned into energy, not converted into fat and stored by the body.

Finally, exercise is an excellent way to manage your stress hormones too. Whether you go out for a run, take a daily walk with your family or hit the gym, exercising will help maintain your lean body mass. This is especially important during prolonged periods of high cortisol levels.

What Happens When You Produce Too Much Or Little Cortisol

Cortisol Hormone: Its Role In Stress, Inflammation, And Weight Gain ...

The body usually produces the right amount of cortisol. In a condition such as Cushings syndrome, it produces too much. In a condition such as Addisons disease, it produces too little.

Symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  • weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face
  • thin and fragile skin that is slow to heal
  • for women, facial hair and irregular menstrual periods

Symptoms of not enough cortisol include:

If you experience any of these symptoms, your doctor may suggest you have a blood test to measure your cortisol levels.

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What Causes Cushings Syndrome

The most common cause of Cushings syndrome is the long-term, high-dose use of the cortisol-like glucocorticoids. These medicines are used to treat other medical conditions, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Glucocorticoids are often injected into a joint to treat pain. Use of glucocorticoids also suppresses the immune system after an organ transplant to keep the body from rejecting the new organ.

Other people develop endogenous Cushings syndrome because their bodies make too much cortisol. Several types of tumors can cause the body to make excess cortisol.

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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Common Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels

According to Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms associated with excess cortisol levels can include:

  • Rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest, and abdomen
  • A flushed and round face
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety, depression, or irritability
  • Increased thirst and frequent urination

You may also experience more body hair growth or have trouble sleeping . Among women, symptoms of high cortisol can include a decreased sex drive and menstrual cycle irregularities.

Negative Effects Of High Cortisol

How to Help Low Morning Cortisol

Adrenal imbalance in women tends to peak between the ages of 35 and 55 and most often shows up in one of the following ways:

  • You’re always active and feel “wired.” Your system is constantly fueled by adrenaline and cortisol to create what feels like a continual state of hyper-energy. Yet you often feel drained.
  • You can’t get up in the morning but you can’t sleep at night. Your natural 24-cycle of energy and relaxation is off-balance. If you’re able to fall asleep, you may wake up in the middle of the night fully alert.
  • You have no energy period. You feel exhausted all the time. Even getting out of bed often feels like a challenge. You may also experience intense cravings and unexplained weight gain.

Adrenal imbalance may be a factor in many other serious conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, arthritis, anxiety at night and more.

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