With busy schedules and lives, it’s common for many adults to experience high levels of stress and anxiety sometimes. But if you are continually stressed out or chronically stressed, it can increase cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone.”
While cortisol is essential for your body’s response to stress, prolonged elevated levels can negatively affect your physical and mental well-being.
Read on as we explore what cortisol is, the impact of high cortisol and ways to lower stress hormones and promote a healthier, more balanced life.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is one of several hormones our bodies produce naturally. It is known as the “stress hormone” but has many important effects and functions.
“Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands located on top of your kidneys,” said Leena Shahla, MD, an endocrinologist with Banner – University Medicine. “These glands are part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which include the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, both of which are in your brain.”
Cortisol production is regulated by a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). It is a pea-sized gland at the base of your brain.
In addition to the stress (“fight or flight”) response, cortisol helps regulate your metabolism, immune response, blood pressure, blood sugar and your body’s inflammatory response.
What causes high cortisol levels?
“Cortisol follows a natural daily pattern known as the circadian rhythm. Cortisol levels are typically highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day, reaching their lowest level at night,” Dr. Shahla said. “This pattern helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle.”
It helps you start your day on a high note and ease into bedtime. That said, if your cortisol levels are continually high past the morning spike, this usually indicates an underlying health problem.
Your provider may refer to high cortisol as hypercortisolism. “Causes for hypercortisolism include chronic stress, excessive steroid use and a medical condition called Cushing syndrome or disease,” Dr. Shahla said.
The following factors can increase cortisol levels:
- Cushing syndrome is usually caused by a tumor located in the pituitary gland, adrenal glands or rarely other parts of the body (called ectopic Cushing).
- High stress, either psychological or physical, can cause the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol as part of the stress response.
- Moderate and high-intensity exercise can raise cortisol levels. However, levels return to baseline levels after exercise.
- Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can lead to higher cortisol levels.
- Inflammatory conditions in the body, such as autoimmune disorders or chronic infections, can raise cortisol levels.
- Certain medications like corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs like prednisone) can raise cortisol levels.
- Consuming large amounts of alcohol and caffeine can temporarily raise cortisol levels.
What happens when your cortisol is high?
Consistently high cortisol levels can lead to a range of physical and psychological symptoms, including:
- Weight gain, especially around the midsection (abdomen)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Impaired memory, concentration and decision-making abilities
- Sleep disturbances, like insomnia
- Mood swings and irritability
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Dysfunction of the immune system
- Irregular periods (menstrual cycles)
- Low sex drive (libido)
How can I reduce my cortisol levels?
If you think you might have high cortisol, talk to your health care provider.
“We typically will measure your cortisol levels through blood, saliva or urine,” Dr. Shahla said. “Once we can help determine the underlying cause of your symptoms, we can help you treat or manage your condition.”
Stress management techniques:
- Relaxation exercises. Engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga.
- Physical activity. Thirty minutes of regular exercise, including aerobic activities like jogging, cycling and swimming, can help lower levels.
- Mindfulness and mind-body practices. Practicing mindfulness, such as mindful eating or mindful meditation, can help reduce stress and cortisol levels.
- Establish a bedtime routine. Create a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
- Optimize your sleep environment. Make your bedroom conducive to sleep by blocking out excessive light and noise and maintaining a cool temperature.
- Limit stimulants before bed. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and electronic devices close to bedtimes as these can interfere with sleep quality.
Balanced lifestyle choices:
- Healthy diet. Eat a balanced diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. Limit sugary, processed foods.
- Social support. Spend time with your loved ones and pursue hobbies to help buffer the effects of stress and provide emotional support.
- Time management. Prioritize tasks, delegate responsibilities when possible and set realistic goals. This can reduce feeling overwhelmed and prevent chronic stress.
Will I need medication?
In general, there are many natural things you can do to help lower cortisol levels. However, specialists sometimes use synthetic cortisol-like medications to treat common cortisol-related disorders.
If you have Cushing syndrome, treatment may involve medication like:
- steroid receptor blockers (mifepristone)
- adrenal enzyme inhibitors to lower cortisol synthesis (ketoconazole, osilodrostat, metyrapone, levoketoconazole)
- ACTH secretion inhibitors (pasireotide) to lower cortisol production
Treatment might also require surgery, and occasionally radiation therapy.
However, Dr. Shahla cautioned against the prolonged use of steroid medication.
“It is important to understand the risk of prolonged steroid use,” Dr. Shahla said. “Use the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible duration and discuss with your health care provider.”
If you are still feeling overwhelmed and stressed at work or home, talk to your health care provider, a licensed behavioral health specialist or another qualified professional for personalized guidance and support.
“Your provider will, depending on the case, measure your cortisol level,” Dr. Shahla said. “If the level is elevated, you will need to be evaluated by a specialist (endocrinologist) to further test and treat as needed.”
To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
High cortisol levels can significantly impact your overall well-being, affecting your physical health, mental clarity and emotional balance.
You can lower cortisol levels and regain control over your stress response by implementing stress management techniques, prioritizing quality sleep and adopting a balanced lifestyle.
Taking small steps toward self-care and reducing stress can profoundly and positively impact your long-term health and happiness.