It’s no secret that stress can take a toll on our health in many ways. Mentally, it can lead to anxiety and depression, burnout at work, and feeling irritable and overwhelmed. Physically, it can cause fatigue, trouble sleeping and appetite changes.
When stress becomes chronic and cortisol levels (commonly referred to as the "stress hormone") get too high, it can lead to even more health issues. Here’s everything you need to know about cortisol, and signs you have too much of this hormone in your system.
The Negative Effects of Too Much Cortisol
Cortisol is an essential hormone produced and released by adrenal glands. Many people associate cortisol as being the “stress hormone,” but it actually has many important functions, including helping to regulate the body’s response to stress, control metabolism, suppress inflammation, regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and help control the sleep-wake cycle, Dr. Jeffrey Dlott, Medical Director of Consumer Health at Quest Diagnostics, explains.
When your body is under stress, it sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. It’s the body’s way of prepping for a potentially dangerous, harmful or tense situation, and once the threat passes, hormones typically return to normal levels.
If you’re constantly stressed, though, that return to normal levels might not always happen. Long-term, this can influence many of the body’s systems and processes and increase the risk of health conditions like heart disease, anxiety, depression, insulin resistance and diabetes, and obesity, Dr. Dlott adds.
Other issues that can contribute to high levels of cortisol include issues with the pituitary gland, an organ at the base of the brain that helps control hormone secretion, adrenal gland tumors, or estrogen. Certain medications can also contribute to high cortisol levels, such as certain steroids or oral contraceptives, so it’s important to work with your doctor to determine appropriate dosage levels and for monitoring.
Signs Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High
There are numerous general symptoms that may be linked to too much cortisol. Dr. Dlott provides a list:
Weight gain—primarily in the midsection
High blood pressure
“While rare, high levels of cortisol can also lead to a hormonal disorder known as Cushing’s syndrome, which is most commonly caused by steroid medications but can also be caused by a tumor on the pituitary or adrenal glands. Some common symptoms include a rounded and rosy face, increased fat in the upper back, extreme fatigue, high blood pressure or high blood sugar levels, kidney stones, weak bones, thinning of the skin, [easy] bruising, and slow healing,” says Dr. Dlott.
What You Can Do to Reduce Cortisol Levels
The first step is to consult a medical professional.
If you suspect you may have high cortisol levels, it’s important to see a healthcare provider, as they can order a blood test to measure your cortisol levels, Dr. Dlott states. Since symptoms of high cortisol can also be associated with other conditions and health issues, it’s important to get confirmation on what is or is not causing your symptoms.
Once you find out the source of high cortisol, you can take steps to treat it.
Methods for reducing cortisol levels depend on the root cause, Dr. Dlott explains. For Cushing’s syndrome, you’ll typically need medical interventions like medication and/or surgery. However, finding ways to manage stress levels, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and making sure you’re getting enough sleep can have a positive impact on managing cortisol levels as well as your overall health.
Dr. Trent Orfanos, MD, ABIHM, Director of Integrative and Functional Cardiology, agrees that sleep, exercise and healthy eating habits are essential.
“High cortisol levels can promote insomnia, but poor sleep can also promote insomnia. It’s a cyclical relationship, so do your part to get at least eight hours of sleep a night,” says Dr. Orfanos. “Additionally, incorporate regular movement and exercise into your life, and consider a low-carb diet for weight management. Excess weight also has somewhat of a cyclical relationship with cortisol, just as sleep does. So, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight.
Finally, do your best to practice stress management, whether it’s through meditation, breathing exercises, or whatever works for you. Dr. Orfanos recommends this Heart Math exercise:
First, take slow, deep breaths.
Bring your attention down into your chest around your heart.
Next, bring to mind and remember or recall a situation, person, or thing, where you felt a positive emotion such as gratitude, appreciation, and love. Try to really remember exactly how it felt in your body and mind. In turn, your heart will generate a healthy rhythmic pattern, helping to lower your stress levels.