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Symptoms of high cortisol levels—and what you can do next

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on July 10, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Wondering if you could have high cortisol? Read on to learn more about the role cortisol plays in the body, high cortisol levels symptoms, and how an at-home cortisol test can help.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol—popularly known as the “stress hormone”—plays a key role in your body’s response to stressful situations. It also regulates a variety of functions within your body and impacts both your metabolism and immune function. It controls blood sugar levels, influences memory formation, and affects your salt and water balance.

Cortisol is produced and secreted by the adrenal cortex and is naturally released in the body every day. It affects energy levels by regulating the release of glucose—a major source of fuel in the body that helps keep you energized.

Though the body requires cortisol to survive and thrive, too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time—often the result of chronic stress—can harm one’s health. Chronic stress has been linked with depression and other mental health conditions, heart disease, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and more.

It’s common to have a high cortisol level due to stress. Stress often arises due to new, challenging life events—like a new job, a big move, a changing relationship—but long-term or chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes and trigger symptoms like headaches, sweating, dry mouth, gastrointestinal issues, and anxiety. And if you can’t stay asleep at night, it may also be because of ongoing, chronic stress.

Too much cortisol can also lead to a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors, like increased cortisol secretion brought on by a pituitary tumor (which produces the adrenocorticotropic hormone, the hormone responsible for stimulating cortisol secretion). It can also be caused by certain cortisone-related drugs, like prednisone and prednisolone. High doses of steroids used for long periods of time may also cause Cushing’s disease. This condition is most often found in men and women between the ages of 20 and 50 years.

Common symptoms of high cortisol levels

According to Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms associated with excess cortisol levels can include:

  • Rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest, and abdomen
  • A flushed and round face
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Skin changes (such as bruises and purple stretch marks)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Anxiety, depression, or irritability
  • Increased thirst and frequent urination

You may also experience more body hair growth or have trouble sleeping (since cortisol affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle). Among women, symptoms of high cortisol can include a decreased sex drive and menstrual cycle irregularities.

What about low cortisol levels?

It’s also possible to have extremely low cortisol levels, which can be caused by a dysfunction of the pituitary or adrenal gland. This is referred to as Addison’s disease, which can include symptoms like dizziness upon standing, fatigue, weight loss, mood changes, muscle weakness, and darkening areas of the skin.

Reducing excess cortisol levels

In general, one of the most effective ways to lower your cortisol levels is to lower your stress. Here are some stress management tips that could help:

  • Breathing exercises and meditation may be a good place to start
  • Set aside time for long walks in nature where you can clear your head
  • Make sure you’re eating healthy foods and are filling your body with the fuel of fresh vegetables, fruit, and hearty whole grains
  • Stay connected with family and friends and find someone you can talk to about life stressors, whether that’s a mental health professional or a close friend
  • Focus on creating a regular sleeping routine and stick to it as much as possible

Understand your cortisol levels with home testing

You can easily check your cortisol levels from the convenience of home with our Sleep & Stress Test kit. This test will tell you how your cortisol levels change over a 24-hour period, which can help you understand if you’re experiencing chronic stress and what parts of the day are especially stress-inducing for you. The test also measures melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” so you can get a better picture of your overall sleep-wake cycle.

If you do have chronically elevated cortisol levels, you can easily share your cortisol test results with your healthcare provider through our secure, online platform—so you can then learn what next steps they recommend for you.


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References

1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Hydrocortisone, CID=5754, URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.

2. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020.

3. Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008;15(4):9-18.

4. Cushing's Syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.

5. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.

6. Addison's disease. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.

7. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.