8 Signs That Indicate High Cortisol Levels

Your body can give you signals that indicate high cortisol levels and, if you don't know how to identify them, your health could be at risk.
8 Signs That Indicate High Cortisol Levels

Last update: 28 April, 2023

Before telling you what the 8 signs that indicate high cortisol levels are, it’s important that you know where this hormone comes from. It’s produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands and participates in important processes in the body, especially those related to the immune system.

It’s also known as the stress hormone. The body increases its secretion in stressful situations to help us stay calm and alert by releasing glucose and lipids. However, this same action suppresses the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to possible infections.

The imbalance of the normal levels of this hormone can even affect blood pressure and the metabolism of fats and proteins, destabilize blood sugar levels, and cause fertility problems. These symptoms are associated with Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder caused by high cortisol levels.

What causes high cortisol levels?

We already mentioned that stress is one of the factors that lead to an increase in the secretion of this hormone. We also found that excessive exercise, excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, steroid intake, severe depression, and problems related to adrenal disorders in the hypothalamus or pituitary gland can increase its production.

During pregnancy, specifically in the last weeks of gestation, the placenta produces the CRH hormone, which increases cortisol levels in the body. However, it hasn’t been determined that this affects the baby or the mother.

It’s important to note that the hormone is released by the body at different times of the day. That is, it’s aligned with the circadian cycle. Therefore, cortisol levels decrease during the night and increase when we’re awake.

Doctor points an adrenal gland.
The production of cortisol in the adrenal gland is part of the normal functioning of the body.

The 8 signs that indicate high cortisol levels

Taking into account that cortisol is important for the proper functioning of the body, your body may be giving different signals that indicate an imbalance of this hormone. It’s important to pay attention and seek medical help if the condition is suspected.

1. Weight gain

Weight gain, especially in areas such as the shoulders, chest, and back, may indicate that there are high levels of cortisol in the body. This is because the hormone controls lipid, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism.

In addition, excess cortisol in the body leads to the intake of foods with high energy density, which can exceed caloric expenditure. Other studies have shown that fructose in the brain stimulates the release of cortisol, leading to insulin resistance and weight gain.

2. Skin problems

High cortisol levels also affect the skin. The fragility and thinness of the dermis are signs of an increase in this hormone, which produces the appearance of purple stretch marks. This condition affects the abdominal area and the buttocks.

Bruises can also appear at the slightest impact or trauma in any part of the body. For its part, the face becomes greasy, with acne. Alopecia, that is, hair loss, is also common, as well as the opposite effect, with increased facial hair.

3. Musculoskeletal disorders

Cushing’s syndrome can lead to impaired intestinal absorption and renal reabsorption of calcium, which can lead to bone problems, such as osteoporosis. This disease affects the structure of the bones and puts them at high risk of fracture.

It can also trigger muscle atrophy, a condition that causes muscle size to decrease. The end result is the loss of strength.

4. Irritability and anxiety

High cortisol levels lead to psychological alterations. We find, then, that irritability, anxiety, and depression are clear symptoms of this. Anxiety can lead patients to experience mood swings for no apparent reason.

Those who’ve been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease often experience constant irritability and even decreased libido and panic attacks. Therefore, the accompaniment of a psychologist is vital to overcome these states.

5. Hypertension

Another sign that indicates high cortisol levels is arterial hypertension, which can be associated with the appearance of a pituitary tumor. Also, treatment for Cushing’s syndrome and the use of corticosteroid medications can cause the appearance of what’s known as secondary hypertension.

6. Effects on the immune system

The greatest impact of cortisol on the immune system occurs in response to a stressful situation. When there’s something that produces this sensation in us, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland so that it activates the adrenal glands through the ACTH hormone. Then, cortisol and adrenaline are released.

When cortisol is secreted in high amounts, leukocytes (white blood cells) undergo changes that affect their task. There’s also a reduction in the action of cytokines.

7. Insomnia

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, cortisol secretion is aligned with the circadian cycle. The highest rates of release occur during the day and drop at night in order to rest. Therefore, when the levels of the hormone remain high, insomnia occurs, that is, the inability to sleep.

Even if hormone levels remain high, lack of sleep will cause you to feel tired. It can also lead the person to experience stress or anxiety related to not being able to sleep. This can further affect the hormonal imbalance.

8. Infertility

Fertility difficulties in men and women are sometimes associated with high cortisol levels. Women stop ovulating and their menstrual cycles become irregular. In men, sperm concentration decreases.

This is due to the impact of cortisol on the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which are responsible for the production of hormones such as FSH, which stimulates estrogen secretion; LH, which stimulates female ovulation; male testosterone, and thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH.

A plastic model of the thyroid gland and a stethoscope sitting on a doctor's desk.
The thyroid gland responds to cortisol levels indirectly.

How to lower high cortisol levels?

If you think you’re experiencing one or more of the signs that indicate high cortisol levels, you need to seek medical attention. It’s also possible to carry out certain activities that complement the recommended treatment according to the specific case. Some are the following:

  • Reduce stress levels: To achieve this, seek psychological help and spend time doing an activity that gives you peace of mind.
  • Avoid caffeine consumption: One of the signs that indicate high cortisol levels is insomnia. So, avoid consuming these types of drinks so as not to add more factors that prevent your body from resting.
  • Try to sleep well: Avoid being distracted by electronic devices when you’re not feeling sleepy, as the hormone can lead you to be more active at night and disrupt your rest cycles. Look for alternatives that help you sleep.
  • Do physical activity: In addition to providing you with well-being, exercise can help keep cortisol levels balanced.

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