General signs and symptoms of too much cortisol include:
- Weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- Weight gain and rounding of the face
- Thinning skin
- Easy bruising
- Flushed face
What Is High Cortisol?
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because of its role in the body’s stress response. But cortisol is about more than just stress. Cortisol is a steroid hormone is made in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Cortisol has a variety of functions including blood sugar regulation, reduction of inflammation, regulation of metabolism, and it even plays a role in memory formation. Cortisol is important for your health, but it is a double-edged sword. High cortisol levels can play havoc with your body.
- Slowed healing
- Muscle weakness
- Severe fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- High blood pressure
Stress triggers the release of adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone and cortisol. This causes an increase in heart and breathing rate along with other changes to prepare the body for a potentially dangerous or harmful situation.
Cortisol helps to limit any functions that aren’t essential in a fight-or-flight situation, such as digestion. Once the threat passes, your hormones return to their usual levels. If you are under constant stress however, this mechanism doesn’t turn off. Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can take its’ toll on almost all of your body’s processes, increasing your risk of many health issues including heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression.
The pituitary gland, often called the master gland because it releases hormones that control other glands, is a pea sized organ at the base of your brain. The pituitary releases adrenocorticotropic hormone, ACTH, that triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
Circulating estrogen can increase cortisol levels in your 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.
Should I see a doctor?
If you think you might have high cortisol, it’s important to see a doctor for a blood test. High cortisol causes common signs and symptoms that can be caused by many other diseases, so it’s important to confirm what’s causing your symptoms. Unmanaged high cortisol levels can have serious consequences on your health. Left untreated, high cortisol can increase (1) your risk of serious health conditions, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Psychiatric disorders
Cortisol production is part of your body’s natural response to threats of harm or danger. But having high cortisol over an extended period of time can have lasting effects on your health. If you have symptoms of high cortisol, it’s best to start with a blood test to see how high your cortisol level is. Based on your results, a doctor can help to narrow down the underlying cause and help you get your cortisol level back to a safe level.
1. A Buliman, LG Tataranu, DL Paun, A Mirica, and C Dumitrache Cushing’s disease: a multidisciplinary overview of the clinical features, diagnosis, and treatment J Med
Life. 2016 Jan-Mar; 9(1): 12–18.