Cortisol is a very important element in our bodies. During difficult life moments, cortisol converts proteins into usable energy. This happens with a release of glycogen and neutralizing chances of inflammation. High cortisol level for short periods of time is okay. But if lasts for long, high cortisol levels can tear your body down. While cortisol is an important element in our bodies on certain occasions, too much of it is a health risk.

Facts About Cortisol

What is cortisol and what can it do?

Secreted from the adrenal glands, cortisol is a glucocorticoid commonly referred to as a steroid hormone. Every human being has two adrenal glands sitting on each kidney and is responsible for the secretion of cortisol, which is important for our lives. Small secretions of cortisol helps in:

  • Responding to stress and controlling it

  • Balancing insulin effects to maintain normal sugar levels in blood by using fat and sugar for body energy

  • Regulating the body immune system

  • Regulating blood pressure

What causes high cortisol levels?

Even though cortisol is good for us, high levels of it have detrimental effects. High cortisol levels lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. This condition is caused by:

  • Acute stress

  • Adrenal complications – some problems linked to adrenal glands

  • Steroid drugs - some steroid drugs taken have same effects as cortisol

  • Excessive alcohol intake

  • Acute depression

Signs That You're Having High Cortisol Levels


You're not sleeping well.

Your body relaxes with low cortisol levels and that is why we sleep. If not, there is a high chance that you have high cortisol levels in your body. With time, your adrenal glands can be depleted by high cortisol levels. This predisposes your body to acute fatigue.


You have belly fat.

Cortisol has a direct influence of the storage of fats and gaining of weight in individuals who are going through stress. High cortisol levels are closely linked to excessive eating, a high craving for sugary and fatty foods and the relocation of fat to the abdominal area in your body.


You don’t have a normal drive for sex.

High cortisol levels interfere with the normal testosterone levels in men. That way, testicles will not respond normally to testosterone. For women, high cortisol levels create a hormonal imbalance when menstruation occurs. This often leads to low or irregular libido.


You have ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Intestine and stomach ulcers are commonly present in people who are under depression or are anxious. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one such disease that is related to stress. This includes disorders in the intestines such as gas, bloating, colitis, abdominal pain and an irregular passage of blood and mucus.


You have cardiovascular disease.

At times, human bodies experience what is commonly known as “fight or flight” response. At such times, the human heart reacts by pumping blood more. There are chances that your digestion will be shut or the direct flow of blood to your legs and arms hampered. Constant stress in such a situation can attack your heart.


You get frequent aches on your head and back.

A prolonged high cortisol level depletes your adrenal glands. The depletion of adrenal glands raises the level of prolactin. You body’s sensitivity to pain thus increases. At the slightest pain infliction, body muscles will start to ache. High cortisol levels also increases the pain sensitivity in your brain. As a result, you start to get frequent headaches at the slightest sting.


You easily get infected especially with colds.

Cortisol affects your body’s ability to resist illness and germs. Your immune system is adversely affected, leaving you prone to almost every disease. Your body can no longer have immunity against even the slightest exposure to disease causing germs.


You like eating sugary foods.

High cortisol levels increases sugar in the blood. This increases your chance of being diabetic. The increased sugar levels in your blood pump up insulin levels that are responsible for dropping sugar levels in your blood. This prompts your body to demand for unhealthy and sugary food substances.


You feel uneasy and depressed.

An anxious stomach, panic, jitters or at times paranoia are closely linked to high cortisol levels. Cortisol affects your body by suppressing serotonin production that amounts to low production of brain cells. Soon, you start to become gloomy and your mood may end up in depression.


You have a dry skin.

High cortisol levels can lead to the dehydration of your skin accompanied by pains and aches on your back. For women, they may have facial hair. There could also be stretch marks that are either pink or purple comparable to those of some pregnant women.


You feel weak in your bones and muscles.

With high cortisol levels in your body, your bones and muscles are bound to be affected. Often, you may experience an acute pain seemingly stemming out of your bones. Your muscles will feel weak and even have a sharp backache that becomes worse when you engage in some physical activities. Your bones may also become thin and brittle, becoming prone to fractures to the spine and ribs.


You have hypertension.

One of the causes of high blood pressure is high cortisol levels in your body. Now that cortisol could make you have a craving for unhealthy foods, your high cortisol levels could have deeply taken its toll on your body leading to a pressure above 120 mmHg/80 mmHg in your blood.

Is It Dangerous to Have High Cortisol Levels?

Yes. High cortisol levels are potentially harmful to our bodies. 

They often interfere with the normal functioning of your bones and muscles. The immune system is adversely affected leading to a low disease resistance condition. It also hampers normal regeneration of cells and production of important body hormones. Additionally, it can lead to impaired digestion, mental function and metabolism as well. Your adrenal glands can be fatigued which usually is the main reason for these complications. However, it can be treated.

How Can I Know If I'm Having High Cortisol Levels?

High cortisol symptoms in your body can start to manifest after taking some corticosteroid prescriptions for some conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, asthma or arthritis. Therefore, you can get tested for high cortisol levels in such a situation.

If you often get depressed, have frequent headaches and backaches among other symptoms, it is important you go for a medical examination to check your cortisol level. With the help of your doctor, you can determine whether you have high cortisol levels or not with the following ways:

  • Late-night salivary cortisol and midnight plasma cortisol tests

  • A blood test for the low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (LDDST)

  • A 24-hour urinary test

After that, your doctor may use these tests to help determine the causes of your high cortisol levels:

  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) stimulation test

  • High-dose dexamethasone suppression test (HDDST) (blood test)

  • Imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)


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