What Are the Symptoms of High Cortisol and What Do They Mean?
Read on to learn more about high cortisol symptoms and what the levels of cortisol in your body mean.
Common signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:
- weight gain, especially in the face and abdomen
- fatty deposits between the shoulder blades
- flushed face
- thinning skin
- easy bruising
- difficulty concentrating
- slowed healing
- extreme fatigue
People with high cortisol may also experience:
- Hirsutism: This is a condition in those who were assigned female at birth in which excess hair grows in places it usually does not, such as the face and back.
- Proximal muscle weakness: This is when the muscles closest to the center of the body become weak. These muscles include those of the pelvis, upper arms, and legs.
- Osteoporosis: This is a bone condition in which bone mineral density and bone mass decrease. It can lead to severe back pain, a loss of height, and a stooped posture.
- Diabetes: This is a chronic condition that affects how your body uses blood sugar. Symptoms include blurry vision, extreme tiredness, and numbness.
- Hypertension: This is when your blood pressure is too high. It can cause early morning headaches and irregular heart rhythms, among other symptoms.
Experts use the term Cushing syndrome to describe the main signs and symptoms of high cortisol.
Contact your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of high cortisol.
Cortisol, or “stress hormone,” is a hormone that forms when your adrenal glands synthesize cholesterol. It has a regulatory effect on several different bodily functions, including:
- stress response
- inflammatory response
- immune function
Many systems in your body also use cortisol to perform specific tasks. These systems include:
Blood cortisol levels are naturally highest in the morning and lowest at night. They peak at about 8 A.M. and reach a minimum during the early phase of sleep at night.
Your adrenal glands work with two of your brain’s structures, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, to produce and secrete cortisol. Experts call this production network the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.
If the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis fails to regulate itself properly, excess cortisol production may occur. This may cause symptoms of Cushing syndrome.
Cushing syndrome most commonly affects adults between the ages of 25 to 40. However, it can also occur in children.
There are different factors that can cause high cortisol levels.
When you face a stressful situation, your brain sends distress signals to your adrenal glands.
Your adrenal glands then increase the production of cortisol to help your body mount an appropriate stress response. Your adrenal glands also increase the production of the hormones responsible for accelerating heart rate and fuel production.
Many people experience brief periods of stress from time to time. Others experience chronic or prolonged stress.
Chronic stress can lead to serious health issues and can cause:
Glucocorticoids are artificial steroid hormones. They are a class of corticosteroids.
Doctors typically administer glucocorticoids as part of treatment for inflammatory conditions, such as:
Although glucocorticoids are generally safe, taking them in high doses over a long period of time can cause symptoms of high cortisol levels.
Some types of tumors can also contribute to high cortisol. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) lists them as follows:
Pituitary tumors form on the pituitary gland. They can cause the gland to produce excess adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Excess ACTH, in turn, can cause the adrenal glands to make more cortisol.
Pituitary tumors that secrete excessive ACTH are responsible for 8 in 10 cases of Cushing syndrome that are not the result of glucocorticoid medications.
The medical name for this type of Cushing syndrome is Cushing disease.
Ectopic ACTH-producing tumors
A number of non-pituitary tumors can also cause high cortisol. Researchers use the term ectopic tumors to describe these tumors.
Ectopic tumors can form in various places, including the:
Ectopic tumors can become cancerous.
These are tumors that develop on the adrenal gland. They can stimulate the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol.
Your doctor will measure the level of cortisol in your blood, urine, or saliva to see if you have the condition.
The following are other questions people have asked about high cortisol. They have been reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD.
How do you get your cortisol levels down?
Stress reducers, such as exercise and sufficient rest, may help. Your doctor may also give you cortisol-inhibiting drugs, such as mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone).
How long does it take for cortisol levels to return to normal?
Cortisol levels can remain elevated for several hours after a stress response.
Does anxiety raise cortisol levels?
Emotional states, such as anxiety and stress, can cause cortisol levels to rise. If you constantly have these emotions, you may experience symptoms of high cortisol.
Cortisol, or stress hormone, is a hormone that forms when your adrenal glands synthesize cholesterol. It has a regulatory effect on stress response and several other bodily functions. It also helps the nervous system and various other systems in the body remain functional.
Many factors can contribute to high cortisol and its related symptoms. They include stress, persistent glucocorticoid use, and pituitary tumors.
Your doctor may recommend exercise and other stress management techniques if you have high cortisol. They may also give you cortisol-inhibiting drugs, such as mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone).
Contact your doctor if you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of high cortisol.