Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate many different processes in your body. Cortisol normally increases in response to certain types of stimuli, but what happens when there’s too much cortisol in your body?
Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of high cortisol on your health.
The function of cortisol
Stress is a part of everyday life, and it’s necessary for our bodies to be able to respond appropriately to it. Cortisol plays a big role in regulating this response.
According to the Society for Endocrinology, cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands, which are located above each kidney. Most cells in the human body have receptors for cortisol sensitivity, which means that cortisol can affect practically every part of your body. Some of the main processes that are affected by cortisol include:
- Blood sugar and metabolism
- The formation of memories
- Salt and water balance
- Blood pressure
- Fetal development
Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the mornings right after we wake up, and then decrease gradually until the evening. However, people who are used to working at night have a reverse rhythm, with higher cortisol levels at night.
Extra cortisol is also released when we’re faced with stressful situations, in order to help our bodies respond to the stress. During stressful moments, cortisol triggers our fight or flight response, which has different effects on the body, including:
- Stimulating a quick release of glucose or blood sugar to provide a burst of energy
- Inhibiting digestion so any glucose you have eaten will remain available
- Narrowing your blood vessels so the blood flow to your heart and large muscles increases temporarily
Under normal circumstances, your cortisol levels should get back to normal once the stress has passed. But what happens when you have high cortisol levels?
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Causes of elevated cortisol
There are different conditions that can cause abnormal cortisol levels. According to the Saint John’s Cancer Institute, some of the causes of excess cortisol include:
- Chronic high stress
- Pituitary conditions
- Adrenal tumors
- Ectopic tumors
- Excessive steroids intake
Symptoms of high cortisol
Elevated cortisol can also be referred to as Cushing syndrome. This syndrome develops when your body has been exposed to high levels of cortisol over a long period of time. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms and signs of cortisol excess, or Cushing syndrome can include:
- A fatty hump between your shoulders
- Pink or purple stretch marks on your skin
- A rounded face
- Weight gain
- Thinning, fragile skin
- Slow healing of cuts and wounds
- Muscle weakness
- Cognitive impairment
- Frequent infections
- Bone density loss
- Skin darkening
- Impaired growth in children
High cortisol levels in men
Men with high levels of cortisol can experience additional symptoms, including:
- Low libido
- Decreased fertility
- Erectile dysfunction
High cortisol levels in women
Likewise, women with high cortisol can develop other symptoms, such as:
Can high cortisol cause anxiety?
Yes. As we mentioned above, high cortisol can cause anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and even depression. As the Center for Eating Disorders Management explains, cortisol induces a heightened state of arousal that’s necessary when you’re faced with a stressful situation.
But if your cortisol levels remain elevated, your body and mind never get to relax and rest. This creates additional anxiety, which can lead to a wide range of symptoms over time. This is especially tricky when you’re experiencing emotional stress rather than physical stress, since it’s often difficult to get away from the stimulus that’s causing the stress. Unfortunately, our modern routines feature many sources of emotional stress, such as unpaid bills, work deadlines, relationship issues, and many more.
Cortisol resistance symptoms
Cortisol resistance syndrome is a very rare disease in which there are high cortisol levels, but the patient doesn’t have typical signs of Cushing syndrome. According to a study published in the journal Clinical Diabetes and Endocrinology, patients with cortisol resistance syndrome often exhibit very mild symptoms, or even no symptoms at all. Very few cases of cortisol resistance syndrome have been reported.
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How do I know if I have high cortisol levels?
If you exhibit signs and symptoms of Cushing syndrome, your doctor will probably order different tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possibilities. Additionally, you may need to get other tests done to identify the cause of the issue. These tests can include blood tests, imaging tests, and even saliva and urine tests.
How to manage cortisol levels?
Managing your cortisol levels will largely depend on what’s causing them in the first place. For example, people with elevated cortisol due to a pituitary condition will need a different management versus people with elevated cortisol due to chronic stress. That means that the first thing you need to do is seek medical assistance so you can get the right diagnosis.
It’s very important to note that if your high cortisol is caused by taking steroids, you shouldn’t stop your steroid treatment suddenly. Steroids should always be tapered gradually, since stopping them suddenly can cause low cortisol, which has complications that can be severe and even life-threatening.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, some of the tips that can help you manage cortisol dump symptoms caused by stress include:
- Eat a whole food, plant-heavy, balanced diet
- Talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin
- Practice deep breathing exercises
- Ask your doctor about supplements such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, lemon balm, and chamomile
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep
- Spend more time outdoors
- Take up yoga, tai chi, mindfulness meditation, or another mind-body practice
There are many health situations that can increase your stress and cortisol levels, including being diagnosed with an STD. But thanks to at-home STD testing, you can collect your samples from the privacy of your own home. Learn more about at-home STD testing at STDWatch.com now.
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Cortisol - yourhormones.info
How to Identify High Cortisol Levels: Cushing’s Syndrome - saintjohnscancer.org
Cushing syndrome - mayoclinic.org
Cushing’s syndrome with no clinical stigmata – a variant of glucocorticoid resistance syndrome - clindiabetesendo.biomedcentral.com
How to Reduce Cortisol and Turn Down the Dial on Stress - health.clevelandclinic.org