High Cortisol Levels: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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Feeling constantly flustered and fatigued? You’re not alone. Up to 75% of adults experience chronic stress, which can wreak havoc on your health by elevating cortisol, your body’s stress hormone.

This can lead to a domino effect of unwelcome symptoms, impacting everything from your sleep to your weight. But fear not! By understanding the causes and consequences of high cortisol levels, you can take control of your health and restore balance. Dive deeper and discover how to identify and combat this sneaky hormone!

Key Takeaways:

  • Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that helps regulate blood sugar, metabolism, and immune function.
  • High cortisol levels can be caused by stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet.
  • Symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.
  • If you think you may have high cortisol levels, it is important to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Treatments for high cortisol levels may include medication, lifestyle changes, or both.

What is Cortisol?

Chronic stress can significantly impact your health, and one of the ways it manifests is through elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including regulating blood sugar, managing inflammation, and aiding memory formation. However, chronically high cortisol levels can lead to a cascade of negative consequences.

What Are Cortisol Levels, and Why Do They Matter?

Cortisol is a hormone that’s secreted by the adrenal glands. Cortisol levels are measured in nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml).

In order to understand the importance of cortisol, it helps to know what it does:

  • Helps your body respond to stress by releasing energy stores, such as glycogen and fatty acids.
  • Gives you more immediate energy for things like running away from an attacker or fighting back against someone trying to hurt you.
  • Regulates blood sugar levels; when there aren’t enough carbohydrates available for energy use, cortisol steps in with gluconeogenesis–the process of creating new glucose from non-carbohydrate sources like protein and fat–to keep blood sugar stable when we need it most (like during exercise).

 Understanding High Cortisol Levels

What is cortisol?A hormone produced by the adrenal glands, regulating blood sugar, metabolism, and immune function.
Functions of cortisol:Helps manage stress, regulates blood sugar, aids in memory formation, and boosts energy levels.
Impact of high cortisol:Weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, headaches, and skin problems.
Common causes:Chronic stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, certain medications, and medical conditions like Cushing’s syndrome.
Symptoms of high cortisol:Excessive weight gain around the midsection, unexplained fatigue, persistent anxiety or irritability, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, easy bruising, and skin thinning.
Diagnosis:Blood tests, saliva tests, and urine tests.
Treatment options:Lifestyle changes (stress management, sleep hygiene, diet), medication, or a combination of both, depending on the cause and severity.

Normal Cortisol Levels

  • Normal cortisol levels: Normal cortisol levels are between 5 and 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl), or 0.5 to 2 milligrams per liter (mg/L).
  • High cortisol levels: High cortisol levels are defined as being above 30 mcg/dL, or 3 mg/L.
  • Low cortisol levels: Low cortisol is less than 10 mcg/dL, which equates to 0.1 mg/L in most cases but may be slightly lower for some individuals who have been taking corticosteroids for long periods or those with adrenal insufficiency due to disease or injury.

High Cortisol Levels Symptoms

  • Weight gain, particularly around the midsection: This is due to cortisol’s ability to promote fat storage and decrease muscle mass.
  • Fatigue and difficulty sleeping: Cortisol disrupts sleep cycles, leading to daytime fatigue and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night.
  • Anxiety and irritability: High cortisol levels can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and contribute to mood swings.
  • High blood pressure: Cortisol can constrict blood vessels, leading to increased blood pressure.
  • Muscle weakness and headaches: Cortisol can break down muscle tissue and contribute to headaches.
  • Skin problems: High cortisol levels can lead to thinning skin, easy bruising, and acne breakouts.

Causes of High Cortisol Levels

  • Chronic stress: This is the most common cause of high cortisol levels. Stressful life events, work demands, and relationship issues can all contribute to chronically elevated cortisol.
  • Sleep deprivation: Not getting enough sleep disrupts the body’s natural cortisol rhythm, leading to higher levels throughout the day.
  • Poor diet: A diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can contribute to inflammation and stress, ultimately impacting cortisol levels.
  • Certain medications: Some medications, such as corticosteroids, can increase cortisol levels.
  • Medical conditions: Cushing’s syndrome is a rare medical condition that causes the body to produce too much cortisol.
Stress causes high cortisol levels

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a key component of your ability to get a good night’s sleep. As you can imagine, not getting enough sleep can lead to many problems, such as a lack of energy and focus during the day.

To improve your sleep deprivation: Before going to bed, remove distractions like computers and televisions. Use an eye mask or earplugs if you need to block out noise. Make sure no light comes through the windows into your sleeping room.

Nutrition Privacy

To help your cortisol levels, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. This includes eating lots of fruits and veggies. You should also eat lean proteins like fish and chicken, and whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. Include nuts and seeds, like almonds and walnuts, and healthy fats, such as avocados and coconut oil. Avoid sugary foods because they can cause blood sugar spikes, which lead to high cortisol levels.

Avoiding refined carbohydrates is crucial as well. They digest quickly, leading to blood sugar and cortisol spikes.

To lessen stress on your adrenal glands, here’s what you can do: Avoid caffeine and limit alcohol. If you drink, do so in moderation. Take time for yourself every day, away from tech and people. Make sure to get enough sleep. Regular exercise is important too. It releases endorphins, making us feel good.

Physical Activity Privacy

Physical activity can help reduce cortisol levels.

  • Exercise is an important part of managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Exercise has been shown to increase endorphins in the brain, making you feel happier and less stressed.
  • When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen. They tell your brain to breathe deeper to get enough oxygen. This reduces cortisol levels. Normally, exercise increases cortisol, leading to problems like weight gain or muscle aches.

Stress Relief Privacy

Stress relief is crucial. It comes from exercise, meditation, and joyful activities. Finding what works for you is key. Talking to others who have coped with stress can offer valuable advice.

If you’re too busy for exercise or meditation, look for other relaxation methods. For example, knitting or crafts can calm your mind. They keep your hands busy and distract you from stress.

Diagnosis of High Cortisol Levels

If you’re wondering what to do about your high cortisol levels, the first step is to ask your doctor for a blood test. This is the most common way of diagnosing high cortisol levels and will likely be all that is needed for an accurate diagnosis. If this test comes back positive for elevated cortisol concentrations, other tests may be done as well:

  • Saliva Test – This test measures the amount of cortisol in your saliva at different times throughout the day. It’s not as accurate as a blood test but can still provide useful information about how much stress you’re experiencing on any given day or week (as opposed to just measuring overall lifetime stress).
  • Urine Test – The urine test checks the amount of cortisone your body has released into your urine in a specific period, usually 24 hours. This test can tell if you’ve been under chronic stress for a long time. However, it doesn’t specify when the stress happened or how long it lasted for each person.

Treatment of Excess Cortisol Levels in the Bloodstream

Treatment of Excess Cortisol Levels in the Bloodstream
  • Stress management: Techniques like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and spending time in nature can effectively reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.
  • Improved sleep hygiene: Establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and optimizing your sleep environment can significantly improve sleep quality and regulate cortisol.
  • Healthy diet: Eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is good for health. It helps keep cortisol levels balanced. It’s important to eat less processed food, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
  • Regular exercise: Engaging in moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week helps manage stress, improve sleep, and lower cortisol levels naturally.
  • Addressing underlying medical conditions: If an underlying medical condition is contributing to high cortisol, seeking proper treatment from a healthcare professional is crucial.

High cortisol levels are only dangerous if they become chronic.

Cortisol levels are highest in the morning. They decrease throughout the day and increase again in the evening. High cortisol levels over a long time can cause obesity and depression.

You can measure cortisol with a salivary cortisol test. This test checks your saliva for cortisol levels over 24 hours. It involves collecting and analyzing saliva samples for hormone levels.

Having high cortisol levels can cause problems, but there are things you can do to reduce it.

Having high cortisol levels can cause problems, but there are things you can do to reduce it.

If you have high cortisol levels, there are things you can do to reduce them. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body deal with stress and is usually highest in the morning and drops throughout the day. It’s not uncommon for people with high cortisol levels to also experience:

  • Weight gain (especially around their midsection) because of increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates or sugar.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood problems are often due to low dopamine production. This happens because of low serotonin levels, which cause depression.
  • High cortisol levels affect both physical and mental health. Symptoms include mood swings, weight gain, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and fatigue. Stress, adrenal gland issues, or medications can raise cortisol levels.
  • Normal cortisol levels vary throughout the day, with stress, and with conditions like anxiety and depression. It’s crucial to consult a healthcare professional. They can help identify the reasons for high cortisol and create a management plan.

Treatments for high cortisol levels

Cortisol is a hormone that’s produced by the adrenal glands. It’s released in response to stress and triggers the fight-or-flight response—yyour body’s way of trying to protect itself.

Most people have higher cortisol levels when they wake up, which helps them get going. But if yours are too high, it can cause problems such as weight gain and an inability to sleep well. Your doctor may prescribe medication or recommend lifestyle changes to help lower your cortisol levels.

Combating High Cortisol Levels Naturally

Stress management:Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.Reduces cortisol production and promotes feelings of calm.
Prioritize sleep:Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.Improves mood, energy levels, and stress resilience.
Maintain a balanced diet:Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, while limiting processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats.Regulates blood sugar, reduces inflammation, and supports overall health.
Regular exercise:Engage in moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.Lowers cortisol levels, improves mood, and promotes better sleep.
Limit caffeine and alcohol:Excessive intake can disrupt sleep and exacerbate stress hormones.Enhances sleep quality and promotes relaxation.
Connect with loved ones:Build strong social connections and engage in activities you enjoy.Provides social support, reduces stress, and boosts overall well-being.


If your doctor believes medication is necessary, you might be prescribed hydrocortisone, prednisone, or methylprednisolone. These medications prevent cortisol effects in your body. You can take them either as pills or injections into your muscles. However, they can cause severe side effects like bone loss and a weakened immune system. Usually, they are used for a short time during intense stress. They should not be taken for a long time without a doctor’s oversight due to the risk of side effects.

Eat a healthy diet

Eat foods that lower stress and boost mood, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, including fish. Stay away from processed foods rich in sugar and fat. They can spike your blood sugar and raise cortisol levels over time. Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water every day. Not drinking enough water can also raise cortisol.

Exercise regularly

Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help lower high cortisol levels by helping you relax and sleep better at night. You should also try to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night if possible. To help further reduce stress, consider adding yoga or tai chi classes into your schedule.


We hope this helps you understand cortisol levels and their impact on your health. Remember, if your doctor says your cortisol levels are high, don’t panic. First, get tested to find out why. Then, you and your doctor can create a treatment plan. This will help lower your cortisol levels to a normal range.