When we become stressed out bodies release cortisol – the stress hormone – which helps us cope with challenges. Cortisol’s role is to convert protein into energy by releasing glycogen and counteract inflammation. When cortisol is released in the body temporarily, this is okay and won’t have long-lasting detrimental effects to health as it is a natural response to a stressor. But when cortisol levels remain high chronically it can eventually begin to tear your body down thus causing health complications. This is why numerous health experts recommend the reduction of stress as much as possible because in the long run it can harm our health.
High cortisol levels over the long term can destroy healthy muscle and bone, slow down healing, impair digestion, metabolism and mental function, and weaken the immune system. Additionally, adrenal fatigue has been linked to numerous other health conditions including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, premature menopause, and many others. High cortisol levels are also associated with many unwanted symptoms which we will outline below.
High cortisol symptoms
If you’re concerned about your cortisol levels, the following signs and symptoms associated with high cortisol levels can alert you and prompt you to make the necessary changes in order to reduce cortisol levels.
- Unexplained weight gain
- Skin symptoms including acne, skin infections, lesions, thin-appearing skin, bruising, growing facial hair, and reddish purple streaks on skin
- Muscle and bone symptoms like a deep pain in the bones, weak muscles, chronic backaches, increased risk of bone fractures
- Gender specific changes such as women developing male-pattern hair growth, irregular menstrual cycles, low libido, infertility
- Neurological symptoms such as depression, irritability, headaches, chronic fatigue, and anxiety
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Poor sleep or lack of sleep
- Swelling of hands and feet
If you notice any of the above symptoms, you may want to have your cortisol levels checked to confirm diagnosis. Living with high cortisol levels over the long term can have detrimental effects on a person’s health. Treating high cortisol as soon as possible can lower the risk of long-term health problems.
Causes of high cortisol
There are two main causes of high cortisol: Chronic stress and more rarely, Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease is caused by a hormone-secreting tumor on the adrenal gland which results in the release more cortisol than required.
Living with chronic stress also leads to high cortisol because the release of cortisol is a natural response from the body when it is stressed. The hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis is what regulates the timely release of cortisol during acute stress, but when stress becomes chronic the feedback from the HPA becomes damaged and so cortisol continues to be released.
Conditions that can contribute to chronic stress and high cortisol include:
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Severe obesity
- Metabolic syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Working in shifts
- End-stage kidney disease
- Chronic pain
Tips to lower high cortisol
Here are some tips that can help you lower your high cortisol levels and thus prevent long-term health problems associated with high cortisol.
- Eat a well balanced meal with plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid sugars, consume low glycemic index foods, avoid processed foods, eat a wide variety of health foods to ensure you receive all essential vitamins and nutrients
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Take time out of each day to relax – listen to music, meditate, pray, perform your favorite hobby, anything that promotes relaxation
- Take up yoga or tai chi
- Ensure you are getting adequate sleep
- Drink tea
- Watch funny videos or hang out with a funny friend
- Go for a massage
- Do something spiritual – attend a service
- Chew gum
- Limit caffeine intake
By incorporating these helpful tips into your life you will find that your high cortisol symptoms begin to diminish and your overall health begins to improve.