High Cortisol Levels: 12 Worrying Signs and What to Do About It

Dealing with high cortisol levels can be a real pain…

Everyone has high cortisol levels occasionally, and they can even vary throughout the day. It’s part of our body’s natural response to threats of danger. Yet, if your body consistently produces too much cortisol, it can indicate an underlying health issue.

Doctors may refer to high cortisol as hypercortisolism or Cushing syndrome. And knowing how to lower these levels obviously depends on the cause. For instance, if stress is causing it, finding ways to deal with stress should lower your cortisol levels.

Some supplements, like ashwagandha, phosphatidylserine, and Omega-3, can help reduce high cortisol levels. Lifestyle choices, including a healthy diet or relaxation, can also help decrease cortisol levels.

Your doctor may even recommend certain medications or other treatments depending on the cause. But to simplify it and help you understand what your dealing with, we’ve created a list of 12 symptoms of high cortisol levels.

… Read on to learn how to recognize the symptoms and any potential causes.

High Cortisol Level
Photo by Danijela Maksimovic at Shutterstock

Anxiety attacks and panic disorders

A cortisol imbalance can also induce a loss of emotional control that can manifest itself as anxiety and panic attacks. Researchers have found that conditions that cause excess cortisol, such as HPA axis dysfunction, can lead to generalized anxiety disorder.

Decreasing cortisol levels will help improve anxiety disorders and can help you deal with stress better. Of course, having a panic attack can also be a factor in causing cortisol levels to spike.

Weight gain

Long-term stress can cause weight gain by boosting hormones like cortisol and ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.” This can lead to an inflated appetite and cravings for sweet, calorie-dense foods and those high in carbs.

A 2018 study discovered that higher cortisol is usually a result of chronic stress. The study also found that people under a lot of stress tended to gain weight. High cortisol levels put those individuals at greater risk of weight gain even after the stressful events had occurred.

Poor skin health

One of the most prominent tell-tale signs of excess cortisol is fragile skin, which heals slowly and frequently breaks out in acne. Various scientific studies on humans and animals have discovered that chronic stress damages your skin’s health.

For instance, excess cortisol can cause DNA damage to your cells. Also, HPA axis dysfunction harms the skin. One study found that women under extreme stress or who suffered from constant lack of sleep suffered from skin problems due to a loss of skin barrier function.

Scientists reported that high cortisol was caused by stress that affected skin health. Another study uncovered that stress causes the HPA axis to produce higher cortisol levels. This stress response triggered or aggravated acne and resulted in more breakouts.

Digestive problems

Having high cortisol levels indicates that you probably suffer from various digestive issues as well. When levels of this hormone are too elevated, fewer digestive enzymes are produced in your body. This can cause your digestive system to stop working the way it should.

Other studies have discovered that the effects of high cortisol on your digestive system can also induce diarrhea and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Depression and mood swings

Another one of the many symptoms of excess cortisol levels you probably didn’t know about is changes to your mood. The journal Stress noted that dysfunction of the HPA axis is frequently associated with mood disorders.

Bringing cortisol levels down to regular levels is one way to improve the symptoms of mood disorders and help treat depression.

Bone loss

High cortisol levels can impact bone health and might even lead to an increased risk of fractures if your cortisol levels remain high. Scientists have discovered that Cushing’s disease and overproduction of cortisol reduce bone density.

Even though bone density can drop with age, a surplus of cortisol can speed up the rate at which bone loss occurs.

High blood pressure and heart disease

One of the signs of Cushing’s syndrome is an increase in cortisol levels that leads to hypertension. Researchers have found that a rise in cortisol levels hikes up blood pressure. Of course, acute stress-related conditions help your body deal with the threat.

Nevertheless, long-term high levels of cortisol, like with Cushing’s syndrome, can lead to hypertension.

High Cortisol Level
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A few other general symptoms of high cortisol levels

According to physicians from the Mayo Clinic, having high cortisol levels can also cause a few of the following symptoms:

-Muscle weakness
-Frequent migraines and headaches
-Decreased cognitive function
-Severe fatigue
-Impaired growth in children

So what are the causes of high cortisol levels?

Pituitary gland problems

One of the reasons for showing symptoms of too much cortisol is having an excess production of adrenocorticotropin hormone. This can occasionally occur because of a tumor in the pituitary gland.

Too much stress

Stress is one of the most common causes for showing signs of excess cortisol. Research shows that the cortisol hormone significantly increases during stressful circumstances. Excess cortisol can continue to be released up to an hour after the event.

These high stress hormone levels can also cause an accumulation of body fat if they become chronic. Scientists can also measure cortisol levels to help determine how much stress a person is under.

Your adrenal glands that create cortisol also affect your thyroid. Researchers have discovered that low thyroid hormones can also accompany symptoms of high cortisol.

Lack of sleep

The journal Sleep declared that lack of sleep seems to impact cortisol secretion. In a study on participants who were sleep-deprived, evening cortisol levels were heightened and the levels dropped slower than the control subjects.

A side effect of certain medications

Symptoms of an overproduction of the cortisol hormone might arise if you take corticosteroid medication. Treatment with this type of medication is usually prescribed to treat inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, or asthma.

Adrenal gland tumors

Adrenal gland tumors can also cause high cortisol levels. Treating the issue lowers cortisol levels and relieves some of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome.

Excess caffeine and alcohol consumption

Drinking too much alcohol regularly can cause cortisol levels to spike. One study involving over 3,600 women and men found that consuming alcohol increased cortisol secretion in the body.

The increased cortisol levels happen because alcohol influences the HPA axis. Caffeine also raises cortisol secretion in those under mental stress.

High Cortisol Level
Photo by Danijela Maksimovic at Shutterstock

Supplements for reducing cortisol

If your health is suffering from high cortisol levels, supplements and a few lifestyle changes can help. Here are three supplements doctors recommend:

-Phosphatidylserine: The supplement phosphatidylserine positively impacts your mind and memory and can help lower cortisol production. One study found that 600 mg of phosphatidylserine supplements daily can lower cortisol levels after intensive exercise.

This can be an effective way for athletes or those who enjoy regular intensive training to dodge the effects of too much cortisol.

-Omega-3: Taking omega-3 fish oil helps reduce inflammation and balance the undesirable effects of high cortisol levels. One study involving men found that taking 7.2 g of fish oil daily helped lower cortisol levels throughout a 3-week period.

The impact of omega-3 on stress levels was favorable, and the supplements helped regulate the central nervous system.

-Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is a fantastic supplement that provides support during emotional stress. As a result, ashwagandha supplementation can help lower cortisol levels.

One study discovered that taking 300 mg of ashwagandha twice daily can help decrease cortisol levels without causing any adverse side effects.

If you suspect you’ve been experiencing symptoms of high cortisol levels, make an appointment to speak with your doctor as soon as you can.

And if you found this article helpful, we highly recommend also reading: 9 Problematic Sleeping Habits That Are Damaging Your Health


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