High Cortisol Levels: Causes and Effects

Cortisol is a hormone that plays a role in the body’s stress response, but this hormone’s role is larger than many people realize. Within proper quantities, cortisol is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight, controlling sleep cycles, regulating blood pressure, and controlling many other crucial bodily functions. However, high cortisol levels can greatly impact your health and may be a sign of underlying health problems.

The adrenal glands produce cortisol. These glands are located on top of the kidneys and are a part of the endocrine system. To a greater or lesser degree, cortisol affects nearly every tissue and organ in the body, helping to regulate bodily functions and keep you healthy. However, when released in excessive quantities over a period of time, this hormone can have an extremely adverse impact on health and overall wellness.


What Do High Cortisol Levels Mean?

Under normal conditions, the level of cortisol in the body changes throughout the day and is regulated by an elaborate system controlled by the pituitary gland, which is a small gland located just below your brain. These fluctuations throughout the day mean it is natural for cortisol to reach higher or lower levels, and it is even normal for it to reach high levels from time to time. However, naturally, these high levels should drop to a normal level. If they do not over an extended period of time, this can be harmful to health.


What Level of Cortisol Is Considered High?

Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, which helps to regulate energy levels and sleep patterns. During the early morning, the body will increase the level of cortisol in the bloodstream to help increase energy, and it will decline throughout the day. Typically, it will reach its lowest level at around midnight, helping you get to sleep.

This can change depending on an individual’s sleep habits, such as if they work on a night shift and sleep at different times. However, for most individuals, normal ranges for cortisol in the bloodstream are:

  • For tests taken at around 8:00 am, 5-25 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • For tests taken around 4:00 pm, 3-13 mcg/dL.

Normal ranges are dependent upon the time of day, the type of test, and the individual. Though at-home test kits can be acquired, individuals should be cautious attempting to diagnose high cortisol on their own. If a healthcare professional administers a cortisol level test, they will help to interpret the results and determine if a given cortisol level is abnormally high.


What Causes High Levels of Cortisol?

Abnormally high levels of Cortisol are referred to as hypercortisolism, or most commonly, Cushing’s Syndrome. Short-term changes in cortisol are completely normal, and everyone will have high cortisol levels at times. However, if these levels remain high over an extended period of time, it usually indicates an underlying problem, which can have significant adverse effects on health. 

High levels of cortisol may indicate underlying issues, including

  • High-Stress Levels: Stress causes the body to release a wide range of signals through both hormones and nerves, which includes cortisol. This is known as the fight or flight response, and in short time frames, for example, when running away from a predator, is helpful to our survivor.  In such scenarios, when the stressor is gone, cortisol levels will drop. However, in modern life, these stressors may not go away quickly and high cortisol levels can continue long-term.
  • Medication Side Effects: Some medications can cause an increase in cortisol, such as corticosteroids often used to treat asthma, arthritis, or cancer. This is most common when they are consumed in a high dose or over a long period of time. It is important to discuss any side effects of taking medication with a healthcare provider before making any changes.
  • Adrenal or Pituitary Gland Tumors: Adrenal gland tumors, as well as those that produce an adrenocorticotropic hormone which is typically found in the pituitary gland, can result in the overproduction of cortisol. Less commonly, neuroendocrine tumors in other parts of the body can cause this problem.

Over an extended period of time, high cortisol levels will often cause noticeable side effects, which may be the first sign of a problem.


Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

If you know what high stress feels like, then you are on the right track to understanding how high cortisol levels can feel. The extent and types of symptoms may vary considerably depending on how high these levels are as well as the underlying cause. Over an extended period, many symptoms can result, and this includes:

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Depression and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Acne
  • High blood pressure
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight gain, particularly in the face and abdomen
  • Fragile and easily bruised skin


Symptoms of High Cortisol in Women

For women, hormones play a particularly crucial role in daily life, health, and wellness which means that hormonal disruptions can have a significant impact. This includes effects on other hormones, including estrogen levels which may be increased in conjunction with high cortisol. For women of childbearing age, high cortisol levels can affect menstrual cycles and result in anovulation, heavier periods, or longer menstrual cycles. In addition to this and the regular symptoms, women with high cortisol levels may experience the following:

  • Increased hormonal symptoms such as night sweats and mood swings
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Cravings for sweets and other foods which can lead to weight gain


Symptoms of High Cortisol in Males

Men are just as vulnerable to facing high cortisol levels, and they, too, can suffer all the regular symptoms above. However, in addition to this, they may suffer unique symptoms, including:

  • Reduced sex drive
  • Low fertility
  • Erectile dysfunction


What Are the Effects of High Cortisol Levels?

As the symptoms above show, high cortisol levels can have a significant impact on your life and health. From mental challenges such as anxiety and depression to physical effects including weight gain and high blood pressure, high cortisol can cause widespread and lasting harm to just about every aspect of your life. 


What’s Next?

Cortisol is a necessary hormone that, within normal levels, plays a crucial role in regulating many processes throughout the body. This “stress hormone” also helps to provide an extra boost of energy when threats arise. However, when cortisol levels remain at an abnormally high level for an extended period, this can cause significant harm. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage high cortisol levels, including:

  • Managing stress levels: Taking steps to manage stress, from meditation to simply avoiding stressors and managing stressful thinking patterns, can help to reduce cortisol levels caused by high stress.
  • Getting quality sleep: Having a regular sleep schedule that gives you enough quality sleep is crucial to helping your body manage cortisol levels.
  • Exercising regularly: Studies have shown exercise can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality which can help to reduce cortisol levels over time.
  • See a healthcare professional: If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of high cortisol that do not go away in a short period, it is crucial to seek help. A healthcare professional can help to diagnose the underlying cause of these symptoms and help to treat them.
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