Cortisol is a hormone that plays an essential role in our body’s stress response. It helps regulate blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and immune function. However, when levels are constantly elevated due to chronic stress or other underlying health conditions, it can lead to a range of symptoms. In this article, we’ll explore some common symptoms of too much cortisol, how they can impact your overall health, and how to bring them down without taking medication.

Also see, Foods That Lower Cortisol and Does Cortisol Increase Blood Sugar

Stress management system poster

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. 

It plays an important role in regulating metabolism, immune function, and blood pressure. This is because it helps the body cope with stress by increasing blood sugar levels, providing the body with energy to deal with the current issue.

When levels are too high or too low, it can lead to a range of health problems. 

Too much cortisol can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It can also impair cognitive function and increase anxiety and depression.

On the other hand, low levels can result in fatigue, muscle weakness, and difficulty coping with stress. 

Low cortisol may be caused by adrenal insufficiency or chronic stress that exhausts the body’s ability to produce enough.

To keep levels balanced, it’s important to manage stress, among other causes. How To Balance Cortisol Levels Naturally?

Importance Of Cortisol In The Body

1. Helps you cope with stress

One of the primary functions of cortisol is to help the body cope with stress. When we experience stress, whether it’s physical or emotional, our bodies release cortisol into the bloodstream. This hormone helps increase blood sugar levels and provides us with the energy needed for a fight-or-flight response.

2. Fights inflammation

Another important function of cortisol is its anti-inflammatory properties. It helps prevent inflammation in the body by suppressing immune system activity. This prevents widespread inflammation of the nerves and tissues, such as during an injury or infection.

3. Regulates your sleep pattern

Cortisol also plays a role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It has been shown that cortisol levels are highest in the morning when we wake up and gradually decrease throughout the day until they reach their lowest point at night. This natural fluctuation helps promote healthy sleep patterns.

Physical Symptoms of Too Much Cortisol

1. Weight gain 

One of the ways that cortisol causes weight gain is by increasing appetite. When cortisol levels are high, it can trigger cravings for sugary or high-fat foods. This can lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain.

What’s even worse about this kind of weight gain is that you tend to gain more visceral fat(abdominal fat), which with time can lead to central obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, high levels can interfere with sleep patterns. In fact, a study found that patients with insomnia or lack of sleep without depression presented with high levels of cortisol in the evening and at sleep onset.

Lack of sleep has been linked to increased hunger and decreased metabolism, both of which can contribute to weight gain.

2. Acne and skin problems 

Another common symptom of high cortisol is skin issues like acne.

Acne is a common skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It occurs when the hair follicles on your skin become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, leading to the formation of pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, or cysts.

Cortisol has been shown to increase sebum production in the skin, which can clog pores and lead to breakouts. 

Also, cortisol can cause inflammation throughout the body, including in the skin. This inflammation can exacerbate existing acne or create new pimples.

In addition to acne, cortisol can contribute to other skin problems, such as eczema and psoriasis. 

These conditions are characterized by redness, itching, and skin inflammation. Cortisol’s inflammatory properties can worsen these symptoms and make it more difficult for individuals with these conditions to manage their symptoms.

Stress-induced cortisol production has also been linked to premature aging of the skin. This is because cortisol breaks down collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, which keep it looking youthful and firm. As a result, chronic stress over time may lead to wrinkles and sagging skin.

3. Muscle weakness and fatigue 

One of the ways that cortisol impacts muscle function is by breaking down muscle tissue to release amino acids into the bloodstream for energy. 

This process is known as catabolism and occurs during periods of prolonged stress or fasting when the body needs to maintain blood sugar levels.

While catabolism can be beneficial in certain contexts, such as during exercise or short-term fasting, chronic cortisol elevation can lead to excessive muscle breakdown and loss. 

This can result in muscle weakness and fatigue since there are fewer functional muscles available to perform daily activities.

Moreover, cortisol also interferes with other hormones involved in muscle growth and repair. For example, it suppresses testosterone production in men and women, leading to decreased bone density and making them more prone to fractures due to osteoporosis resulting from low testosterone levels.

4. High blood pressure 

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a common condition that occurs when the force of blood against the walls of arteries becomes too high, putting extra strain on the heart to pump harder. 

While many factors can contribute to high blood pressure, cortisol has been identified as one potential cause.

When levels rise in response to stress or other stimuli, it causes an increase in heart rate and constriction of blood vessels. This results in higher blood pressure readings than normal. Over time, this can damage the arteries and lead to complications such as stroke or heart attack. Can Stress Cause High Blood Pressure?

5. Slow wound healing 

Wound healing is a complex process that involves various stages, such as inflammation, proliferation, and remodeling. Cortisol affects each of these stages differently. Inflammation plays an important role in the initial stage of wound healing by recruiting immune cells to fight off infection and remove dead tissue from the area. It also triggers the production of growth factors that help repair damaged tissue. However, high levels of cortisol can suppress this process and delay wound healing.

Also, cortisol affects cell proliferation by inhibiting the production of collagen and reducing fibroblast activity – cells responsible for producing connective tissue and repairing wounds. This results in weakened tissue structure and slower wound closure.

Additionally, cortisol reduces blood flow to the affected area by constricting blood vessels. As a result, less oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the site of injury, which negatively impacts cellular metabolism, slowing down wound healing even further. 10 Eczema Home Treatments That Work.

Psychological symptoms of too much cortisol

The mental effects of too much cortisol are often overlooked, but they exist. And if you’re not keen enough, you may not realize that your elevated levels are the cause of your mental issues. Common psychological symptoms of depression include:

6. Anxiety and depression 

High levels of cortisol over an extended period have been shown to cause anxiety and even depression. 

This is because cortisol suppresses the production of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which are responsible for regulating mood. Without enough serotonin and dopamine in the brain, one may experience symptoms like irritability, low mood and energy levels, and depression in severe cases.

Moreover, high levels can also affect sleep patterns resulting in insomnia and fatigue, which can further worsen anxiety and depression. 

7. Irritability and mood swing

One study found that women with higher-than-average cortisol levels experienced more frequent episodes of negative emotions, such as anger and frustration, than those with lower levels. Additionally, people with conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome – where there is an overproduction in their bodies, often experience intense mood swings.

If you’re experiencing irritability or mood swings that seem out of character for you, it could be worth considering whether your levels are elevated due to ongoing stressors in your life. If so, taking steps to manage your stress through activities like exercise or meditation may help reduce your symptoms and improve overall mental well-being. Burnout VS Depression

8. Cognitive decline

A study published in the journal Neurology found that high levels of cortisol were associated with a decline in cognitive function in middle-aged adults. The study followed 2,231 participants over eight years and found that those with higher cortisol levels had a greater decline in memory and executive functioning.

Another study found that high Cortisol levels in the blood were associated with faster cognitive decline in people with very mild or mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Causes of high cortisol levels

  • Medications: One class of drugs that can increase cortisol levels are corticosteroids. These medications are used to treat a variety of conditions such as asthma, arthritis, and autoimmune disorders like lupus and multiple sclerosis. While they are effective in reducing inflammation and suppressing the immune system, prolonged use of corticosteroids can lead to increased levels. Other medications that can increase cortisol include antidepressants and birth control pills.
  • Chronic stress: Stress triggers the release of cortisol as part of the body’s natural response to danger or perceived threats. However, cortisol levels may remain elevated when stress becomes chronic and continuous.
  • Cushing’s syndrome: This is a rare condition caused by an excess production of cortisol by the adrenal glands or pituitary glands. Symptoms include weight gain (particularly around the face and midsection), muscle weakness, thinning skin, and mood swings.
  • Poor Diet: A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause spikes in blood sugar levels and trigger excess cortisol release. Additionally, consuming large amounts of caffeine and alcohol can increase cortisol production.
  • Lack of Sleep: Not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep can also lead to higher cortisol levels. Sleep-deprived individuals have been shown to have higher cortisol levels than those who get adequate rest.
  • Exercise Overload: Over-exercising without proper rest intervals between workouts may cause chronically elevated cortisol concentrations, which could ultimately harm one’s overall health status.

Treatment for High Cortisol Levels

The treatment for high cortisol levels depends on the underlying cause.

For example, if your elevated levels are due to medications like steroids, stopping or reducing the dose may help lower cortisol levels. 

In cases where high levels are caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland or adrenal gland, surgery may be necessary to remove the tumor.

However, some practices can help lower your levels overall. These may include

Getting plenty of rest

Getting enough sleep is essential for regulating cortisol levels, as sleep deprivation has been linked to elevated levels. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night and establish a regular sleep schedule. How To Fall Back Asleep At Night?

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise can help reduce stress and improve overall health, including lowering cortisol levels. Choose activities you enjoy, such as cycling, swimming, or walking outdoors, and do it for at least 30 minutes daily. Benefits Of Cardiovascular Exercise

Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness, such as and deep breathing exercises has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels and promote relaxation and calmness. Why Is Stress Management Important?

Eat a balanced diet

A diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates may help regulate cortisol production while promoting overall health. 8 Laws Of Health

Limit caffeine intake

Caffeine can stimulate the release of cortisol in the body, leading to increased stress levels throughout the day. Limit your caffeine intake by avoiding caffeinated beverages or switching to herbal teas. Top 10 Healthy Herbal Teas To Drink.

Seek support

Talking to friends or family, participating in group therapy sessions, or seeking professional counseling can help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels naturally. So don’t be afraid to reach out for support when needed. Green Therapy

Final Thoughts

Cortisol is a hormone that plays an important role in our body’s stress response system, among other benefits.

However, too much can negatively affect your health and well-being.

High levels can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression, as well as various physical symptoms such as acne and skin inflammation.

If you suspect that you may be experiencing symptoms of elevated levels, it’s important to seek medical advice and treatment to help mitigate the effects and improve your overall health.

By taking steps to manage your stress levels, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet, you can help keep your levels in check for optimal health and well-being.

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