Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is vital for several essential functions in the body. It is produced by the adrenal glands and plays a role in controlling blood sugar levels, metabolism, inflammation, memory, and stress response.
While optimal levels of cortisol are necessary, chronic high cortisol levels can start impacting health adversely. This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, risk factors, and ways to fix high cortisol levels in adults along with precautions to avoid it.
How Does Cortisol Affect The Body? Causes Of High Cortisol Level
Cortisol is often called the stress hormone since the primary trigger for its release is stress. Both physical and psychological stress stimulates the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to the secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus, which then triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.
Other causes of high cortisol levels include Cushing’s syndrome, adrenal gland tumors, hyperthyroidism, and the use of corticosteroid medications.
Chronic alcoholism, obesity, and depression can also lead to excessive cortisol production. Prolonged fasting, intense exercise, septic shock, and surgery can also increase cortisol temporarily.
Signs & Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels
There are several signs and symptoms that may indicate high cortisol levels:
🔶 Unexplained weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, face, and neck. This leads to a Cushingoid appearance.
🔶 Skin changes like thinning, easy bruising, slow wound healing, acne, and purple stretch marks.
🔶 Muscle weakness and wasting.
🔶 High blood pressure.
🔶 High blood sugar.
🔶 Excessive fatigue even after adequate rest.
🔶 Severe mood changes like anxiety, irritability, and depression.
🔶 Loss of libido.
🔶 Changes in the menstrual cycle in women.
🔶 Loss of bone mineral density, increasing osteoporosis risk.
🔶 Increased thirst and urge to urinate frequently.
🔶 Flushed face and skin sensitivity.
🔶 Increased susceptibility to infections due to suppressed immune function.
Risk Factors Of Having Raised Cortisol
Certain factors can increase the risk of high cortisol levels:
🔶 Chronic stress – This leads to continuous activation of the stress response.
🔶 Depression and anxiety disorders – They stimulate cortisol release.
🔶 Cushing’s syndrome – Excess ACTH causes overproduction of cortisol.
🔶 Adrenal adenoma or hyperplasia – Benign tumors can overactive cortisol secretion.
🔶 Obesity – Fat cells secrete more corticotropin-releasing hormone.
🔶 Hyperthyroidism – Thyroid hormones stimulate the adrenal glands.
🔶 Growth hormone excess – It increases protein production needed for cortisol.
🔶 Smoking and alcohol – They interfere with cortisol metabolism.
🔶 Chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension – Can dysregulate the HPA axis.
🔶 Trauma or infection – Lead to the release of inflammatory mediators triggering cortisol.
🔶 Medications like prednisone, birth control pills – Alter cortisol balance.
How Can You Fix High Cortisol Levels In Adults?
There are several lifestyle changes and medical treatments that can help lower high cortisol:
🔶 Stress management through yoga, meditation, and counseling.
🔶 Adequate restful sleep for 7-8 hours.
🔶 Regular exercise helps moderate cortisol release.
🔶 Healthy diet with whole foods, leafy greens, and probiotics. Avoid processed foods, sugars, and alcohol.
🔶 Managing blood sugar spikes through a low glycemic diet.
🔶 Supplements like ashwagandha, phosphatidylserine, and Rhodiola help lower cortisol.
🔶 Reducing caffeine intake.
🔶 Steroid medications or surgery to remove adrenal gland tumors.
🔶 Medications to treat Cushing’s syndrome like ketoconazole, and mitotane.
🔶 Diabetes and blood pressure medications if cortisol leads to these conditions.
🔶 Thyroid hormone replacements for hypothyroidism.
🔶 Stopping or changing corticosteroid medications after discussing with a doctor.
🔶 Psychotherapy and antidepressants for chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
Steps To Control A Drastic Increase In Cortisol Levels In Adults
If cortisol levels are very high, these steps can help control it:
🔶 Get baseline cortisol levels tested through blood or salivary tests over a 24-hour period.
🔶 Look for any underlying medical condition causing it – Cushing’s syndrome, adrenal adenoma, etc.
🔶 Use steroid replacements temporarily to give adrenal glands a break to recover normal function.
🔶 Follow a low-sugar anti-inflammatory diet along with stress reduction techniques.
🔶 Try cortisol-blocking natural supplements like omega 3s, phosphatidylserine, holy basil, and magnesium.
🔶 Identify and manage any psychological triggers for the high cortisol like anxiety, depression, or chronic stress.
🔶 Improve sleep quality through sleep hygiene techniques. Try sleep supplements like melatonin, valerian root, or chamomile.
🔶 Engage in moderate activity daily. High-intensity workouts can actually increase cortisol.
🔶 Use biofeedback tools to learn voluntary control over stress response.
🔶 Consider adrenal fatigue treatment under a functional medicine expert.
🔶 In severe cases, cortisol-blocking steroid drugs like ketoconazole may be used under medical guidance.
Precautions To Avoid High Cortisol Levels
Here are some precautions to maintain a healthy cortisol balance:
🔶 Avoid chronic stressful situations when possible. Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, and yoga.
🔶 Do not smoke or consume excessive alcohol which disrupts cortisol metabolism.
🔶 Have fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C like oranges, bell peppers, and antioxidants which reduce inflammatory triggers of cortisol.
🔶 Get 7-9 hours of quality sleep to allow optimal cortisol production in cycles.
🔶 Engage in fun stress-busting activities like massage, music, and hobbies.
🔶 Take adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, and Rhodiola at the first signs of chronic stress.
🔶 Treat underlying conditions of anxiety, depression, and infections, which may increase cortisol.
🔶 Avoid late evening meals and maintain stable blood sugar through low GI foods.
🔶 Stay well hydrated and limit caffeine intake which can heighten the stress response.
🔶 Use relaxation techniques like belly breathing, mindfulness, and yoga to regularly calm the nervous system.
Balanced cortisol levels are essential for optimal health. But chronic high cortisol can accelerate aging, reduce immunity, and lead to weight gain, bone loss, diabetes, and cognitive decline. Identifying the causes of excessive cortisol through symptoms and risk factor assessment along with medical tests is the first step.
Lifestyle modifications and treatments tailored for underlying medical triggers can help fix high cortisol levels. Natural remedies, diet, stress management, adequate sleep, activity, and seeking medical help, when needed can help control high cortisol for good health.
Q1: Are high cortisol levels dangerous?
High cortisol levels over a prolonged period can be dangerous and lead to Cushing’s syndrome, infections, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, and mental health issues. If the cause is a tumor, it may become life-threatening.
Q2. How do you calm high cortisol levels?
Stress management through meditation, yoga, counseling, and natural remedies like ashwagandha can help calm high cortisol. Lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and sleep can balance hormone levels.
Q3. What happens if you have too much cortisol?
Too much cortisol can cause rapid weight gain, facial rounding, thinning skin, easy bruising, muscle weakness, hair growth, osteoporosis, high BP, blood sugar, increased infections, etc. It negatively impacts the immune system.
Q4. Can high cortisol be reversed?
If the cause of high cortisol like a tumor or Cushing’s syndrome is addressed, cortisol levels can be reversed to normal through treatment and medication. Lifestyle changes also gradually lower excessive cortisol secretion and balance hormone levels.
Q5. Does stress cause high cortisol?
Yes, both physical and emotional stress stimulates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis leading to increased cortisol secretion. Chronic stress causes persistently elevated cortisol which causes adverse health effects.