What is cortisol?
Cortisol, popularly known as the “stress hormone,” plays a key role in your body’s response to stressful situations. It also regulates a variety of functions within your body and impacts both your metabolism and your immune function. It controls blood sugar levels, influences memory formation, and affects the balance of salt and water.
Cortisol is produced and secreted by the adrenal cortex and is released naturally into the body every day. It affects energy levels by regulating the release of glucose, an important source of fuel in the body that helps maintain energy.
This steroid hormone is produced in the adrenal glands. Most cells in our bodies have cortisol receptors that use cortisol for a variety of functions, including
- blood sugar regulation
- inflammation reduction
- regulation of metabolism
- memory formulation
Cortisol is important to your health, but too much can wreak havoc on your body and cause a host of unwanted symptoms.
Although the body requires cortisol to survive and thrive, too much cortisol for an extended period of time, often the result of chronic stress, can harm health. Chronic stress has been linked to depression and other mental health conditions, heart disease, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and more.
Health conditions related to high levels of cortisol
It is common to have a high level of cortisol due to stress. Stress often arises due to challenging new life events such as a new job, a big move, a changing relationship, but long-term or chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes and trigger symptoms like headaches. , sweating, dry mouth, gastrointestinal problems. and anxiety. And if you can’t fall asleep at night, it can also be due to continuous chronic stress.
Too much cortisol can also lead to a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors, such as increased cortisol secretion caused by a pituitary tumor (which produces adrenocorticotropic hormone, the hormone responsible for stimulating cortisol secretion). It can also be caused by certain cortisone-related medications, such as prednisone and prednisolone. High doses of steroids used over long periods of time can also cause Cushing’s disease. This condition is found more frequently in men and women between the ages of 20 and 50.
Common symptoms of high cortisol levels
According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms associated with excessive cortisol levels may include:
- Rapid weight gain mainly on the face, chest and abdomen
- A round reddened face
- Skin changes (such as bruising and purple stretch marks)
- Muscular weakness
- Anxiety, depression, or irritability
- Increased thirst and frequent urination
You may also experience increased growth of body hair or have trouble sleeping (since cortisol affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle). Among women, symptoms of high cortisol may include decreased sexual desire and irregular menstrual cycle.
Several things can contribute to the development of high cortisol.
Stress triggers a combination of hormone and nerve signals. These signals cause the adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The result is an increase in heart rate and energy as part of the fight or flight response. It is the way your body prepares for potentially dangerous or harmful situations.
Cortisol also helps limit any function that is not essential in a fight or flight situation. Once the threat passes, your hormones return to their usual levels. This whole process can be a lifesaver. But when you’re under constant stress, this response doesn’t always go off.
Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost every process in your body, increasing your risk of many health problems, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression.
Pituitary gland problems
The pituitary gland is a small organ at the base of your brain that controls the secretion of various hormones. Problems with the pituitary gland can cause it to produce hormones insufficiently or excessively, including the adrenocorticotropic hormone. This is the hormone that activates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
Pituitary conditions that can cause high cortisol levels include:
- hyperpituitarism (overactive pituitary gland)
- benign pituitary tumors, including adenomas
- cancerous pituitary tumors
Adrenal gland tumors
Your adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney. Adrenal gland tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) and vary in size. Both types can secrete high levels of hormones, including cortisol. This can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Also, if the tumor is large enough to put pressure on nearby organs, you may notice pain or a feeling of fullness in the abdomen.
Adrenal tumors are generally benign and are found in about 1 in 10 people who have an imaging test of the adrenal gland. Adrenal cancers are much rarer.
Medication side effects
Certain medications can cause an increase in cortisol levels. For example, oral contraceptives are linked to the reliable source for increasing cortisol in the blood. Corticosteroid medications used to treat asthma, arthritis, certain cancers, and other conditions can also cause high levels of cortisol when taken in high doses or over a long period of time.
Commonly prescribed corticosteroids include:
- prednisone (Deltasone, Prednicot, Rays)
- cortisone (cortona acetate)
- methylprednisolone (Medrol, methyl PREDISISolone dose pack)
- dexamethasone (Dexamethasone Intensol, DexPak, Baycadron)
Finding the correct dose and taking corticosteroids as prescribed can help reduce the risk of high cortisol levels. Steroid medications should never be discontinued without a gradual decrease. An abrupt interruption can cause low cortisol levels. This can cause low blood pressure and blood sugar, including coma and death. Always talk to your doctor before making changes to your dosing schedule when taking corticosteroids.
Circulating estrogen can increase cortisol levels in the blood. This can be caused by estrogen therapy and pregnancy. A high circulating concentration of estrogen is the most common cause of high cortisol levels in women.
What About Low Cortisol Levels?
It is also possible to have extremely low levels of cortisol, which can be caused by dysfunction of the pituitary or adrenal gland. This is known as Addison’s disease, which can include symptoms such as dizziness upon standing, fatigue, weight loss, mood swings, muscle weakness, and darkened areas of the skin.
Reduce excessive cortisol levels
In general, one of the most effective ways to reduce cortisol levels is to decrease stress. Here are some stress management tips that might help:
- Breathing exercises and meditation can be a good place to start
- Reserve time for long nature walks where you can clear yourself
- Be sure to eat healthy foods and fill your body with the fuel of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
- Stay connected with family and friends and find someone you can talk to about life’s stressors, whether it’s a mental health professional or a close friend
- Focus on creating a regular sleep routine and stay as long as possible
The bottom line
All people have high cortisol from time to time. It is part of your body’s natural response to threats of harm or danger. But having high cortisol for a longer period of time can have lasting effects on your health. If you have symptoms of high cortisol, it is best to start with a blood test to see how high your cortisol level is. Based on your results, a doctor can help reduce the underlying cause and help bring your cortisol level back to a safe level.