In this article, we will look at the various signs of high cortisol and provide insights on how to manage them effectively.

Stress is an inevitable part of life, and our bodies have evolved to respond to it by releasing cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.”

This hormone plays a crucial role in regulating various bodily functions, including metabolism, immune response, and memory.

However, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to consistently high levels of cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on both your physical and mental health. 

See also 8 Symptoms of Too Much Cortisol that You’re Likely to Ignore and Does Cortisol Increase Blood Glucose.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney. 

It belongs to a class of hormones known as glucocorticoids and is released in response to stress. 

Although commonly associated with stress, cortisol also serves other essential functions, including maintaining blood pressure, boosting the immune system, and regulating the body’s inflammatory processes.

Causes of High Cortisol

  • Chronic stress
  • Pituitary issues like hyperpituitarism (overactive pituitary gland)
  • Adrenal gland tumors
  • Medication side effects, especially corticosteroids like prednisone, dexamethasone, cortisone, and methylprednisolone

Blackboard with the chemical formula of cortisol

Physical Signs of High Cortisol

Physical signs of high cortisol levels can manifest in various ways throughout the body, including:

1. Weight Gain or Difficulty Losing Weight

High cortisol levels can lead to increased appetite and fat storage around the abdomen area. 

This may result in unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight despite efforts with exercise and dieting. 

To manage this symptom, regular exercise, a balanced diet rich in whole foods, stress reduction techniques, and sufficient sleep are essential.

2. Increased Blood Pressure

Elevated cortisol levels can contribute to higher blood pressure over time. If left unchecked, this may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. 

It is therefore important to monitor blood pressure regularly and adopt lifestyle changes like reducing salt intake through processed foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and managing stress effectively.

3. Impaired Immune System

Chronic exposure to high cortisol suppresses the immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off infections and diseases. 

As a result, individuals with elevated cortisol levels may experience more frequent illnesses like colds or flu-like symptoms. Strengthening your immune system through a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals, along with regular exercise can be beneficial.

4. Reduced Bone Density

Excess cortisol has been shown to reduce bone density by impairing bone turnover, impairing intestinal absorption and renal reabsorption of calcium, an essential mineral for strong bones and teeth.

This makes people with chronically elevated cortisol more susceptible to osteoporosis or fractures, even from minor accidents. 

5. Skin issues

High cortisol levels can trigger or worsen existing skin conditions such as acne, eczema, or psoriasis. 

In addition to proper skincare routines tailored to your specific condition, stress management techniques and a healthy lifestyle can aid in reducing cortisol levels and improving skin health.

6. Sleep Disturbances

Elevated cortisol levels disrupt our natural sleep patterns by interfering with melatonin production—the hormone responsible for inducing sleepiness. 

As a result, individuals experiencing high cortisol often find it challenging to fall asleep or experience frequent awakenings throughout the night.

7. Digestive Issues

Stress-induced elevated cortisol levels can negatively affect the digestive system, leading to issues like bloating, indigestion, or an increased risk of developing gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

Furthermore, high cortisol can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, which is essential for proper digestion.

Emotional signs of high cortisol 

While you may be familiar with the physical symptoms associated with high cortisol levels, it’s essential not to overlook the emotional signs that may indicate elevated cortisol levels. 

Here are some common emotional signs you should be aware of:

8. Anxiety

Anxiety refers to a general term encompassing various mental health conditions characterized by excessive worry, fearfulness, and apprehension. It goes beyond the typical nervousness experienced before important events or challenges and can manifest as an ongoing state of heightened unease.

So, how can high cortisol cause anxiety? Well, when cortisol levels remain consistently elevated for extended periods, it can disrupt neurotransmitter balance in the brain and trigger feelings of restlessness or unease.

9. Irritability

Irritability refers to a state of being easily annoyed, frustrated, or angered. It is a common human emotion that can arise in response to various situations and circumstances. 

While occasional irritability is normal and experienced by everyone from time to time, persistent or extreme irritability may indicate an underlying issue, including high cortisol levels.

10. Depression 

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.

The exact cause of depression remains unknown but is believed to be influenced by a combination of genetic factors, brain chemistry imbalance, and hormonal imbalances, including cortisol.

Prolonged exposure to excess cortisol can affect serotonin production in your brain by decreasing tryptophan availability. Tryptophan is a serotonin precursor.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation, and a deficiency can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Additionally, cortisol exacerbates existing depressive symptoms. 

11. Difficulty Concentrating

Another emotional sign worth noting is difficulty concentrating or experiencing brain fog. 

Chronically high cortisol impairs cognitive function by interfering with memory retrieval processes and hindering focus ability.

12. Decreased Libido

High cortisol due to chronic stress can disrupt hormonal balance, leading to reduced interest in intimacy and decreased satisfaction with sexual experiences.

13. Emotional Eating

Another manifestation of high cortisol levels is emotional eating. Cortisol can disrupt the balance between hormones responsible for regulating appetite, such as leptin and ghrelin. 

As a result, individuals may resort to food as a coping mechanism to manage their emotions rather than consuming it for physiological hunger cues.

We have looked at Signs of High Cortisol. Now, let’s look at ways to reduce high cortisol levels.

How to manage and reduce high cortisol levels

There are several effective strategies you can adopt to manage and reduce high cortisol levels, including:

1. Recognizing Stressors

Identifying the sources of stress in your life is crucial for managing high cortisol levels. 

Take note of situations or triggers that consistently induce stress responses in your body. It could be work-related pressure, relationship issues, financial worries, or even certain environments or people. 

By recognizing these stressors upfront, you can take proactive steps to minimize their impact.

Additionally, if you suspect that you could be dealing with non-stress-related cortisol elevation, seeking medical advice for further evaluation and treatment is important.

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has proven benefits in reducing stress-induced cortisol levels and promoting relaxation. 

Dedicate a few minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on your breath or a specific point of concentration while observing your thoughts without judgment.

Regular mindfulness practice helps break the cycle of chronic stress by training the mind to stay present rather than dwelling on past events or worrying about future uncertainties.

3. Engage in Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise not only improves physical fitness but also aids in reducing cortisol levels effectively. 

Engaging in activities like jogging, swimming, or dancing helps release endorphins – chemicals that enhance mood and reduce stress response hormones like cortisol.

4. Get Sufficient Sleep

Lack of quality sleep contributes significantly to elevated cortisol levels throughout the day. 

Establishing a consistent sleep routine by going to bed at regular times and creating a relaxing environment free from distractions can help improve both sleep quantity and quality.

5. Prioritize Relaxation Techniques

Incorporating relaxation techniques into your daily routine is vital for managing cortisol levels. 

Experiment with activities such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, aromatherapy, or taking warm baths to induce a state of calmness and reduce stress-related hormones.

6. Adopt a Healthy Diet

Your diet plays a crucial role in regulating cortisol levels. 

Reduce the consumption of processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats, as they can contribute to inflammation and stress in your body. Instead, focus on whole foods due to their high nutrient levels.

7. Introduce Stress Lowering Herbs

In addition to the above strategies for reducing cortisol, various herbs have also been shown to help lower Cortisol levels. They include:

Ashwagandha

ashwagandha close up

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb widely used in Ayurvedic medicine for its ability to combat stress and anxiety. 

It helps regulate cortisol production by supporting the adrenal glands and reducing their sensitivity to stress signals. 

Studies have shown that ashwagandha supplementation can significantly decrease cortisol levels and improve overall mental well-being.

In a small study of 58 participants, taking 250 or 800 mg of ashwagandha extract recorded a reduction in Cortisol levels after eight weeks of use.

A different study also found that consuming ashwagandha daily for 60 days reduced anxiety levels compared to a placebo.

Rhodiola Rosea

Spoon with dry root of rhodiola rosea, and fresh flowers on a napkin from a sacking on a background of wooden boards

Another powerful adaptogen, Rhodiola Rosea, has been traditionally used for centuries to enhance physical performance and reduce fatigue caused by chronic stress. 

This herb aids in balancing cortisol levels by modulating the body’s stress response system and promoting a sense of calmness.

Holy Basil (Tulsi)

holy basil (tulsi) leaves on a wooden cutting board

Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, is a sacred herb in India that has been used for centuries due to its numerous health benefits. One of the most notable benefits of Holy Basil is its ability to lower cortisol levels in the body.

Holy Basil contains adaptogenic properties that help regulate cortisol production and reduce its overall levels in the body. Adaptogens are natural substances that aid in balancing different bodily systems and promoting overall well-being. 

Research studies have shown that consuming Holy Basil regularly can significantly decrease cortisol levels within a few weeks. By lowering cortisol production, Holy Basil helps alleviate stress-related symptoms and improves overall mental and physical health.

Lemon Balm

lemon balm plant

Lemon Balm is a soothing herb known for its calming properties on both the mind and body. 

It contains compounds that inhibit enzymes responsible for breaking down GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation while reducing anxiety symptoms associated with elevated cortisol levels.

In one study, taking lemon balm was shown to soothe negative moods associated with laboratory-induced psychological stress.

Chamomile

chamomile flowers being spooned out of wooden bowl

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is an ancient medicinal herb that belongs to the Asteraceae family. This daisy-like plant has been used for centuries in traditional medicine practices due to its numerous health benefits. The flowers of chamomile are dried and steeped into tea or infused into oil extracts for therapeutic purposes.

Chamomile contains compounds like apigenin that interact with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain responsible for reducing anxiety symptoms. By binding to these receptors, chamomile promotes relaxation and reduces stress-related feelings.

Additionally, high cortisol levels contribute to chronic inflammation, which is associated with various health problems.

Chamomile contains compounds such as chamazulene and bisabolol that possess anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds help lower inflammation levels, thereby reducing the overall impact of cortisol on the body.

Passionflower

passionflower close up

Passionflower, also known as Passiflora incarnata, is a flowering plant that belongs to the Passifloraceae family. It is renowned for its calming effects on the mind and body, making it a popular natural remedy for reducing stress and anxiety.

One of the key benefits of passionflower is its ability to lower cortisol levels. It can do this through various ways, including relieving anxiety.

Passionflower contains compounds like flavonoids and alkaloids that have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties. 

These compounds interact with receptors in your brain responsible for regulating mood and anxiety levels. By binding to these receptors, passionflower promotes relaxation and reduces feelings of stress or uneasiness.

Also, passionflower increases GABA levels by preventing its breakdown through the inhibition of enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAOs). This leads to enhanced relaxation and reduced cortisol production. 

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Final Thoughts

Recognizing the Signs of High Cortisol levels is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being. 

Whether it be through physical symptoms such as weight gain, sleep disturbances, weakened immune function or mental and emotional manifestations like anxiety and irritability, these indicators serve as red flags that our bodies are under excessive stress. 

By being aware of these signs and taking necessary steps to manage stress levels effectively, individuals can strive towards achieving a healthier balance in their lives. 

Whether it involves adopting stress reduction techniques such as exercise, quality sleep, proper diet, meditation, or seeking professional help, prioritizing self-care becomes imperative in combating the detrimental effects of high cortisol on our minds and bodies.

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