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Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels—and What You Can Do Next

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on October 20, 2023. 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.

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When we’re feeling stressed, scared, or anxious, our bodies naturally react. More specifically, the adrenal glands—located at the top of each kidney—flood the body with a glucocorticoid hormone called cortisol. [1]

Nearly all tissues within our bodies have receptors that receive this hormone, meaning our stress responses are full-body sensations. As a result, you may experience “fight or flight,” which puts your body on high alert to defend itself against danger. [1]

While cortisol is released by the adrenal glands, it’s the pituitary gland—located in your brain—that regulates your cortisol levels. Higher than normal cortisol levels are often caused by certain medical conditions and medications

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. Cortisol is produced and secreted by the adrenal cortex and is naturally released in the body every day.

While the hormone adrenaline initially triggers your “fight or flight” response, it’s cortisol that sustains this stress response. That said, cortisol does not only function as your body’s “stress hormone.” It has a variety of different functions throughout the body, which include [1,2]:

  • Regulating your metabolism – Cortisol affects energy levels by regulating the release of glucose—a major source of fuel in the body that keeps you energized. It also plays a role in the digestion and absorption of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
  • Reducing inflammation – High levels of cortisol may temporarily support immune function and limit inflammation. However, chronically high levels will ultimately have a negative effect on both inflammation and your immune system. [3]
  • Supporting normal blood pressure levels – While more research is needed on this subject, it’s generally been observed that high cortisol levels can elevate your blood pressure. As such, researchers assume that the opposite may also be true.
  • Regulating blood sugar levels – When your body is functioning normally, cortisol acts as a counterbalance to insulin to help maintain normal blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and, in extreme cases, type 2 diabetes.
  • Controlling your sleep-wake cycle – Naturally, your body produces less cortisol levels at night and more in the morning. As such, it’s believed that cortisol may play a role in keeping you awake throughout the day, and symptoms of high cortisol levels in the morning are often noticeable.

Though the body requires healthy cortisol levels to survive and thrive, too much cortisol production 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.

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What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

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. Signs of high cortisol include:

  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Anxiety

And if you can’t stay asleep at night, it may also be because of ongoing, chronic stress. [3]

Too much cortisol can also lead to a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome, or hypercortisolism. This condition is most often found in men and women between the ages of 20 and 50 years. [4]

A variety of factors can cause Cushing’s syndrome, like increased cortisol secretion brought on by a pituitary tumor (which produces the adrenocorticotropic hormone, the hormone responsible for stimulating cortisol secretion). [4]

Additionally, Cushing’s syndrome can arise from several other types of tumors, including adrenal cortisol tumors and lung, pancreas, thyroid, and thymus tumors. In the former, a tumor can form on one of the adrenal glands, triggering the production of cortisol. While most adrenal tumors are benign, some can lead to adrenal cancer in rare cases. In the latter, these types of tumors are usually malignant. [2,4]

It can also be caused by certain cortisone-related drugs, like prednisone and prednisolone. These types of medications are typically used to treat such autoimmune diseases as chronic asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and sarcoidosis. High doses of these steroids used for long periods of time can result in higher cortisol levels and cause Cushing’s disease. [4]

Common Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

If you believe your cortisol levels are elevated, it’s likely that you’re already experiencing some physiological signs of the hormonal imbalance. Within your body, it’s working to increase the availability of glucose to provide your body with the necessary energy to respond to a threat. [5]

That said, high cortisol levels are also closely related to adrenaline levels, which typically trigger “fight or flight.” As such, the signs of high cortisol levels can also be tied to symptoms related to adrenaline, which can increase your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and flush your body with energy. [5]

According to Mayo Clinic, high cortisol symptoms associated with excess cortisol levels can include [5]:

  • 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). Symptoms of high cortisol levels in females can include a decreased sex drive and menstrual cycle irregularities. [5]

What Causes 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. [6]

This is referred to as Addison’s disease, and the lower cortisol levels associated with this condition can lead to symptoms like [6]:

  • Dizziness upon standing
  • Fainting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Mood changes
  • Muscle weakness and/or pain
  • Body hair loss
  • Darkening areas of the skin

What To Avoid If Your Cortisol Is High

When it comes to managing high levels of cortisol, it's crucial to be mindful of various lifestyle factors. Some things to consider avoiding in your regular daily routine are as follows [7]:

  • Reduce the intake of coffee, energy drinks, and certain teas, as caffeine can stimulate cortisol production.
  • Minimize sugary and processed foods and choose whole, unprocessed foods to avoid blood sugar spikes and cortisol release.
  • Limit alcohol intake as it can disrupt sleep patterns and increase cortisol levels.

Vitamins To Lower Cortisol Imbalance

Dietary changes can also help regulate your cortisol levels. More specifically, you can incorporate:

  • Vitamin C – Vitamin C can help combat the negative effects of cortisol. It may lower cortisol levels in stressful situations and supports adrenal hormone production.8 You can supplement vitamin C or incorporate foods like citrus, bell peppers, cruciferous vegetables, and white potatoes.
  • Vitamin B5 – Adequate levels of vitamin B5 are important for maintaining a healthy stress response.9 You can find this vitamin in various fortified cereals, as well as organ meats, beef, chicken breast, mushrooms, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
  • Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12, which is found in animal-based products, can help reduce stress by promoting healthy nervous system function. When the nervous system is functioning properly (i.e. not in “fight or flight”), the adrenal glands do not secrete as much cortisol. [10]

Reducing Stress And Elevated Cortisol Levels

In general, one of the most effective ways to lower your cortisol levels is to lower your stress level. 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
  • Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and have been shown to lower cortisol levels as well as high cocoa-concentrated dark chocolate. [11,12]
  • 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

Get to Know Your Cortisol Levels with Everlywell

If you’re experiencing symptoms of high cortisol levels, symptoms of low cortisol levels, or anything else that may indicate a cortisol imbalance, consider taking a cortisol test to gain a clearer picture of your health.

For females, the Everlywell at-home Women’s Health Test is a great place to start. With just a simple finger prick sample collection, you can test your cortisol levels, as well as levels of 10 other biomarkers, including estradiol, progesterone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and more.

Once you confirm what’s causing your symptoms, you can start taking meaningful steps toward feeling your best.

  1. Cortisol. Cleveland Clinic. Published December 10, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  2. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  3. Bains J, et al. Stress and immunity — the circuit makes the difference. Nature Immunology. Published July 21, 2022. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  4. Cushing's Syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  5. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Published August 1, 2023. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  6. Addison's disease. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  7. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Published August 1, 2023. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  8. Vitamin C Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health. Published March 26, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  9. Linus Pauling Institute. (n.d.). Pantothenic Acid. Micronutrient Information Center. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  10. Adrenal Glands. Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  11. Madison A, et al. Omega-3 Supplementation and Stress Reactivity of Cellular Aging Biomarkers: An Ancillary Substudy of a Randomized, Controlled Trial in Midlife Adults. Published April 20, 2021. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  12. Cleveland Clinic. Dark Chocolate: Health Benefits. Published March 10, 2022. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
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