High Cortisol Levels: Symptoms, Causes and How to Lower it (Evidence Based)

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High Cortisol Levels: Warning Signs and How to Lower it
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Cortisol is the main stress hormone in your body that helps control your mood, fear, and motivation. High cortisol levels can cause weight gain, mood swings, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and fatigue. Although the cause of high cortisol is often stress, elevated cortisol levels can be caused by adrenal gland problems or medication.

Knowing how to lower cortisol levels depends much on the cause. For example, if stress is causing too much cortisol, then finding ways to deal with stress should reduce cortisol.

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Some cortisol supplements such as hosphatidylserine, ashwagandha and Omega-3 can help reduce high cortisol levels.

Lifestyle choices such as enjoying a healthy diet or relaxation can also help to reduce cortisol levels.

However, your doctor may recommend certain medications or other treatments depending on the cause of the high cortisol levels.

In this article, you will learn about the symptoms of high cortisol levels. You will also find out how to lower cortisol naturally to help you enjoy a better quality of life.

What is Cortisol and What Does it Do?

Your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol and adrenaline that is often connected with the “fight or flight” stress response.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine say that cortisol hormone helps the body use fat, carbohydrates, regulate blood pressure, increase blood glucose, and suppress inflammation. The pituitary gland in the brain and the adrenal glands on your kidneys are involved in regulating cortisol. This means that issues with these glands can cause high cortisol levels. (1)

Your hypothalamus (a part of your brain), pituitary, and adrenal glands are involved in cortisol production. This is sometimes called the hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and is known to regulate many of the body’s responses to stress.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that cortisol’s function is to help your body deal with perceived threats. Increased cortisol levels help your body deal with stressful situations. Higher cortisol levels also affect the digestive system, immune system, and affect growth. (2)

Usually, when the threat goes away, cortisol level decrease and return to normal. However, chronic stress, underlying health conditions, or sleep deficiencies can cause constant excess cortisol symptoms. Over an extended period of time, high cortisol levels can lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome.

Symptoms of High Cortisol (Cushing’s Syndrome)

High cortisol symptoms can affect your body in a number of ways. Depending on the cause of increased cortisol, you may have one or a number of symptoms.

Let’s look in more detail at the most common signs of high cortisol.

Weight gain

Long-term stress can cause weight gain because it increases hormones in your body such as cortisol and ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”). This can lead to an increased appetite and cravings for sweet, calorie-dense foods, as well as foods high in carbs.

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One 2018 study found that higher cortisol is often a result of chronic stress. The study found that individuals who were under a lot of stress gained weight. Elevated cortisol levels put those individuals at greater risk of weight gain even after the stressful events had passed. (3)

Mood swings and depression

One of the symptoms of excess cortisol levels is changes to your mood.

The journal Stress reported that dysfunction of the HPA axis is often associated with mood disorders. Bringing cortisol levels down to normal levels is one way to improve the symptoms of mood disorders and help treat depression. (4)

Panic and anxiety disorders

A cortisol imbalance can also cause a loss of emotional control that can manifest itself as 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 helped to improve anxiety disorders and can help to deal with stress better. (5)

Of course, having a panic attack can also be a factor in causing cortisol levels to jump up. (6)

Digestive problems

Having high cortisol levels means that you probably suffer from various digestive issues.

When levels of the stress hormone cortisol are too high, fewer digestive enzymes are produced in the body. This can cause your digestive system to stop working as it should. (7)

Other studies have found that the effects of high cortisol on your digestive system can also cause diarrhea and other irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. (8)

Heart disease and high blood pressure

One of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome is an increase in cortisol levels that causes hypertension.

Researchers have found that a spike in cortisol levels puts up blood pressure. Of course, in acute stress-related conditions, this helps your body deal with the danger. However, long-term high levels of cortisol such as with Cushing’s syndrome can lead to hypertension. (9)

Poor skin health

One of the symptoms of excess cortisol is skin that is fragile, doesn’t heal fast, and breaks out in acne.

Various scientific studies on animals and humans have found that chronic stress damages your skin’s health. For example, excess cortisol can cause DNA damage to cells. Also, HPA axis dysfunction has a negative impact on the skin. (10)

One study found that women under extreme stress or who suffered from a lack of sleep suffered from skin issues due to a loss of skin barrier function. Scientists noted that high cortisol was caused by stress that affected skin health. (11)

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Another study found that stress causes the HPA axis to stimulate higher levels of cortisol. This stress response triggered or exacerbated acne and resulted in more breakouts. (12)

Bone loss

High cortisol levels can affect bone health and may lead to increased risk of fractures if cortisol levels continue to be high.

Scientists have found that Cushing’s disease and overproduction of cortisol decrease bone density. Although bone density can reduce with age, excess cortisol can speed up the rate at which bone loss happens. (13)

Other General Signs of High Cortisol Levels

According to doctors from the Mayo Clinic, having too much cortisol can also cause some of the following symptoms: (14)

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

Signs of High Cortisol in Women

There are some symptoms of elevated cortisol levels that generally only affect women. High cortisol levels can cause irregular menstruation and an increase of facial hair in women. (14)

Signs of High Cortisol in Men

Men who have too much cortisol can experience low sex drive and erectile dysfunction. (14)

Causes of High Cortisol Levels

What causes high cortisol levels? Let’s see how stress, pituitary gland dysfunction, and lifestyle choices can all cause cortisol levels to spike.

Too much stress

One of the most common reasons for showing signs of excess cortisol is stress.

Studies have shown that cortisol hormone significantly increases during stressful events. Excess cortisol can continue to be released for up to an hour after the end of the event. These high levels of the stress hormone can also cause an increase in body fat if they become chronic. (15)

Scientists can also measure cortisol levels to help determine how much stress a person is under. (16)

Your adrenal glands that produce cortisol also affect your thyroid. Researchers have found that symptoms of high cortisol can also be accompanied by low thyroid hormones. (32)

Pituitary gland problems

One of the reasons for showing signs of too much cortisol is due to excess production of adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH). This can sometimes occur because of a tumor in the pituitary gland. (1)

Adrenal gland tumors

Hypercortisolism (too much cortisol) can also be caused due to adrenal gland tumors. Treating the adrenal gland tumor lowers cortisol levels and alleviates some of the signs of Cushing’s syndrome. (17)

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Ectopic ACTH-secreting tumor

Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome could be due to benign or cancerous tumors in the lung, pancreas, thyroid, or thymus gland. Sometimes, the tumor can secrete high ACTH and cortisol levels could become elevated. (18)

A side effect of certain medications

Symptoms of an overproduction of cortisol hormone may appear if you take corticosteroid medication. Treatment with corticosteroids is usually prescribed to treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or asthma. (14)

Regular excess alcohol and high caffeine consumption

Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can cause cortisol levels to rise. One study involving over 3,600 men and women found that alcohol consumption increased cortisol secretion in the body. The increased cortisol levels happen because alcohol affects the HPA axis. (19)

Caffeine also increases cortisol secretion in people at rest or people undergoing mental stress. (32)

Lack of sleep

The journal Sleep reported that lack of sleep seems to mess cortisol secretion. In the study on participants who were sleep deprived, evening cortisol levels were elevated and the levels decreased slower than the control subjects. These elevations in cortisol levels increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and obesity. (20)

How to Lower High Cortisol Levels

It is important to reduce elevated cortisol levels to limit the side effects of high cortisol. What can you do if you show signs of too much cortisol?

Deal with stress and anxiety and laugh more

Finding strategies to cope with stress can help to bring down cortisol to normal levels and prevent its side effects.

Studies have found a direct link between chronic stress and increases in morning cortisol levels. Obviously, keeping stress levels manageable will also prevent cortisol levels from rising and impacting on your health. (21)

One study found that laughter can have a positive impact on elevated cortisol levels. Scientists found that laughing more could be a positive lifestyle change to help reduce stress and keep cortisol levels down. (22)

Find out more about how to deal with stress and anxiety and which supplements have stress-relieving effects.

You may also find it helpful to know what to do to boost your mood as that can also help regulate cortisol levels.

Enjoy a healthy diet to lower cortisol levels

Foods that can increase cortisol are refined sugars, unhealthy carbs, and saturated fats. Healthy food choices such as increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables help balance your hormones better.

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The journal Advances in Nutrition reported that a poor diet can affect cortisol concentrations. This can have an impact on cognitive function and affect the HPA axis. Studies have shown that supplements such as magnesium can help to decrease the concentration of cortisol if it’s elevated. (23)

If you have type 2 diabetes and show signs of excess cortisol, then enjoying a healthy diet is essential to control your symptoms. (24)

As well as eating the right foods to help control cortisol, it is essential to drink plenty of fluids. Researchers have found that your levels of hydration can affect cortisol. When the body is dehydrated, cortisol levels increase. (25)

Get enough quality sleep

One of the ways to prevent suffering from the symptoms of high cortisol is to get enough sleep.

The reason that not getting enough sleep impacts your health so much is that it affects the HPA axis and cortisol levels. Scientists have found that getting quality sleep is just as important as getting enough sleep to help maintain proper cortisol levels. (26)

Excess cortisol levels are just one of the ways a lack of sleep affects your body. Find out what else happens to your health when you don’t get enough sleep.

If you have trouble getting to sleep, find out which foods can help to get a better night’s sleep.

Moderate exercise to lower cortisol

Enjoying regular exercise can help to reduce your cortisol levels because it helps to cope with stress better.

The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation reported that moderate, low-intensity exercise has a positive effect on cortisol levels. However, intensive exercise increases cortisol secretion in the body. (27)

Interestingly, sweating after exercise can cause high concentrations of cortisol in the body and these concentrations are detected in hair. Doctors can test hair samples for cortisol to help diagnose conditions related to chronic stress. (33)

Walking is a great low impact exercise that can act as a cortisol reducer and manage your stress levels. One of the benefits of walking every day is that it helps to get rid of excess body fat.

Mindfulness to bring down cortisol levels

One study on the effects of relaxation on stress levels found that integrative body-mind training helps to control cortisol secretion. Regularly taking time out to relax, control your breathing, and being aware of your body can help to deal with stress if done regularly. (28)

Supplements to Reduce Cortisol

If your health is suffering from an overproduction of cortisol, then taking supplements along with positive lifestyle changes can help.

Phosphatidylserine as a cortisol supplement

The supplement phosphatidylserine has a positive effect on your mind and memory and can help reduce cortisol production.

One small study found that phosphatidylserine supplements of 600 mg a day can lower cortisol levels after intensive exercising. This can be an effective way for athletes or people who enjoy regular intensive exercise to avoid the effects of too much cortisol. (29)

Ashwagandha supplement to reduce cortisol

Ashwagandha is a good supplement to provide support during times of emotional or mental stress. Because of this, ashwagandha supplementation can help reduce cortisol levels.

One study found that taking 300 mg of ashwagandha 2 times a day can help to reduce cortisol levels. In the study, the ashwagandha supplement was able to significantly lower cortisol levels without causing any adverse side effects. (30)

Learn more about the proven benefits and uses of ashwagandha.

Omega-3 supplement to lower cortisol

Taking omega-3 fish oil helps to lower inflammation and can help to negate the undesirable effects of high cortisol levels.

One study involving men found that taking 7.2 g of fish oil daily helped to lower cortisol levels over a 3-week period. The effect of omega-3 on stress levels was positive and the supplements helped to regulate the central nervous system. (31)

Other Ways to Lower High Cortisol Levels

Depending on the underlying cause of increased levels of cortisol, it may not be possible to decrease cortisol naturally.

If you show signs of having excess cortisol, your doctor will run various tests to check for Cushing’s syndrome.

Some conventional methods to treat an overproduction of cortisol can include any of the following depending on your condition:

  • Lowering your corticosteroid medication
  • Surgery to remove tumors that cause high ACTH or elevated cortisol levels
  • Medications to help regulate and normalize cortisol secretion

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12 Responses to High Cortisol Levels: Symptoms, Causes and How to Lower it (Evidence Based)

  1. Bette Chumaceiro says:

    I have had Cushing’s on 3 separate occasions. First time was on my pituitary gland, second time was on my adrenal gland and the third time it was on my pituitary gland again. As a result of this, I have had 2/3 of my pituitary gland removed, my adrenal gland removed (they had to break and remove a rib to take it out) and each time I got it I gained between 60-70 lbs. Blood pressure and cholesterol were extremely high. Now I have the opposite problem, where my cortisol is extremely low and I need to take steroids to keep it at an acceptable level.

  2. Mandeep bhamra says:

    my cortisol is extremely low and I need to take steroids to keep it at an acceptable level.

  3. Pam says:

    Did anyone ever feel cortisol burning your insides when high amounts were released?

    • htempelhagen says:

      Pam. I agree. To me I use the analogy of a car battery overcharging somehow. I can feel the effect trying to manifest thru thinning skin, and can easily be scratched or abraided.Nasty enough to produce blistering lesions that can show up withen hours and either dissappear or take a long time to heal. But most definately feel it cursing through one’s system.

    • Eric says:

      I will sometimes get hot flashes, and skin feels dry and stings.

  4. Dawn says:

    Are there any NON-stress related reasons your cortisol can can be too high? I keep my stress levels low, sleep enough, eat well and exercise regularly (three to five times a week). I take a Cortisol management supplement as well as loads of others such as Rhodiola, L- theanine, ashwaganda, and good quantities of all the important supplements including the B vitamins. I drink two cups of coffee in the morning and have a glass or two of wine most nights, and these seem to be the only remaining things I might be able to do. Given everything I do for my health, I am loath to give up my two favorite “vices,” especially since there is no good reason my cortisol should be elevated. What could be causing it OTHER than stress? Thanks!–Dawn

    • Jenny Hills, Medical Writer and Researcher says:

      Hi Dawn, long-term use of corticosteroids and chronic stress are two of the biggest contributors to high cortisol, but there are other medications that can cause it as well as other health conditions. I guess the best solution is to go through a proper medical assessment by your doctor to find out the cause of the elevated levels of cortisol.

    • Brenda says:

      what are your cortisol management supplements?

    • keith kendall says:

      Since I nearly died from hyper-cortisol disorder from chronic stress, I can relate. First thing is cut all processed foods from your diet. Shift to half of your diet being plant based at least. exercise daily. If there is a person in your life using you as I had, cut them from your life. Especially if they have major health problems that tend to asperate their mental problems. Meditate……..and whatever and however you can, SLEEP. Test your cycling cortisol levels. Mine were at the saliva test highs in the morning. Had to take cortisol manager at night to knock it back to reasonable levels. REST………stop being a superwoman or man. Its nto worth it.

  5. keith kendall says:

    No caffeine no alcohol………..both release high amounts of cortisol since one is a trigger to your adrenals to release cortisol (caffeine) and one is a poison which triggers your adrenals to release cortisol. I also went to a counselor to suppress my triggers psychologically due to my childhood traumas. Who knew that something at 5 yrs old trained one’s adrenals to be sensitive all your life.

  6. Carissa Holmes says:

    My cortisol levels were 3 times higher than should be when tested now I have to see a specialist, I have gained easily 50 pounds in its all in my mid section belly. I feel like I gain at least 1 pound everyday. I am a stressed person when I’m not stressing I find something to stress about. I do take Adderall 90 mg a day . sometime more could the Adderall be causing my high levels of cortisol?

    • Jenny Hills, Nutritionist and Medical Writer says:

      I’ve seen that Adderall has a wide range of side effects although I don’t know about cortisol. I would get a second opinion from another specialist as to whether you really need that type of medication or whether there is a better option for you.

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