Symptoms and Signs of High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Too high a level can cause health problems. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of high cortisol.

Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Your body releases cortisol in the “fight or flight” reaction that occurs when you’re under stress. It regulates the release of glucose for energy into the bloodstream and affects metabolism and immune functions. Too much cortisol in the system can cause health problems, including difficulty sleeping, depression, and obesity. A high cortisol level can also lead to osteoporosis, insulin resistance, and even full-blown diabetes. High levels of cortisol are often associated with stress, and stress can cause your blood pressure to rise, give you headaches, and contribute to heart disease. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of high cortisol levels so that you know when to get a checkup with your doctor.

Things To Watch

Symptoms and signs of high cortisol levels include:

  • Fast weight gain, especially an increase in belly fat
  • Fatigue that continues despite sleep
  • Acne and other skin issues
  • High blood pressure
  • Easy bruising
  • Mood changes
  • Weak muscles
  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia

Many different conditions can cause these symptoms. For example, a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome displays many of these symptoms, along with a flushed, round face and a fat pad on the back of the neck. A tumor on the pituitary gland, certain medications, or problems with the adrenal glands are possible causes of Cushing’s. It affects more women than men.

Chronic stress can cause elevated cortisol levels. Reducing stress is good for you, regardless of whether you have high cortisol. Learn to meditate; try to fit in 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day; and eat a diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fiber. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water (8 to 10 glasses a day, for most people), and create an oasis free of screens in your bedroom to encourage a good night’s sleep. Share a laugh with family to blow off steam.

If you’re displaying signs of high cortisol levels, see your doctor for a checkup and to assess your cortisol levels. If your physician suspects Cushing’s or discovers hormonal abnormalities, you might receive a recommendation to see a specialist. Endocrinologists identify and treat disease conditions caused by hormonal imbalances. Dr. Philip Rabito is an endocrinologist in Manhattan, New York, specializing in weight and diabetes control.

Philip Rabito, MD

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