Cortisol is the main stress hormone in your body that helps control your mood, fear, and motivation. High cortisol levels can cause weight gain, mood swings, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and fatigue. Although the cause of high cortisol is often stress, elevated cortisol levels can be caused by adrenal gland problems or medication.
Knowing how to lower cortisol levels depends much on the cause. For example, if stress is causing too much cortisol, then finding ways to deal with stress should reduce cortisol.
Lifestyle choices such as enjoying a healthy diet or relaxation can also help to reduce cortisol levels.
However, your doctor may recommend certain medications or other treatments depending on the cause of the high cortisol levels.
In this article, you will learn about the symptoms of high cortisol levels. You will also find out how to lower cortisol naturally to help you enjoy a better quality of life.
What is Cortisol and What Does it Do?
Your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol and adrenaline that is often connected with the “fight or flight” stress response.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine say that cortisol hormone helps the body use fat, carbohydrates, regulate blood pressure, increase blood glucose, and suppress inflammation. The pituitary gland in the brain and the adrenal glands on your kidneys are involved in regulating cortisol. This means that issues with these glands can cause high cortisol levels. (1)
Your hypothalamus (a part of your brain), pituitary, and adrenal glands are involved in cortisol production. This is sometimes called the hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and is known to regulate many of the body’s responses to stress.
Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that cortisol’s function is to help your body deal with perceived threats. Increased cortisol levels help your body deal with stressful situations. Higher cortisol levels also affect the digestive system, immune system, and affect growth. (2)
Usually, when the threat goes away, cortisol level decrease and return to normal. However, chronic stress, underlying health conditions, or sleep deficiencies can cause constant excess cortisol symptoms. Over an extended period of time, high cortisol levels can lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome.
Symptoms of High Cortisol (Cushing’s Syndrome)
High cortisol symptoms can affect your body in a number of ways. Depending on the cause of increased cortisol, you may have one or a number of symptoms.
Let’s look in more detail at the most common signs of high cortisol.
Long-term stress can cause weight gain because it increases hormones in your body such as cortisol and ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”). This can lead to an increased appetite and cravings for sweet, calorie-dense foods, as well as foods high in carbs.
Mood swings and depression
One of the symptoms of excess cortisol levels is changes to your mood.
The journal Stress reported that dysfunction of the HPA axis is often associated with mood disorders. Bringing cortisol levels down to normal levels is one way to improve the symptoms of mood disorders and help treat depression. (4)
Panic and anxiety disorders
A cortisol imbalance can also cause a loss of emotional control that can manifest itself as panic attacks.
Researchers have found that conditions that cause excess cortisol such as HPA axis dysfunction can lead to generalized anxiety disorder. Decreasing cortisol levels helped to improve anxiety disorders and can help to deal with stress better. (5)
Of course, having a panic attack can also be a factor in causing cortisol levels to jump up. (6)
Having high cortisol levels means that you probably suffer from various digestive issues.
Heart disease and high blood pressure
One of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome is an increase in cortisol levels that causes hypertension.
Researchers have found that a spike in cortisol levels puts up blood pressure. Of course, in acute stress-related conditions, this helps your body deal with the danger. However, long-term high levels of cortisol such as with Cushing’s syndrome can lead to hypertension. (9)
Poor skin health
One of the symptoms of excess cortisol is skin that is fragile, doesn’t heal fast, and breaks out in acne.
Various scientific studies on animals and humans have found that chronic stress damages your skin’s health. For example, excess cortisol can cause DNA damage to cells. Also, HPA axis dysfunction has a negative impact on the skin. (10)
One study found that women under extreme stress or who suffered from a lack of sleep suffered from skin issues due to a loss of skin barrier function. Scientists noted that high cortisol was caused by stress that affected skin health. (11)
High cortisol levels can affect bone health and may lead to increased risk of fractures if cortisol levels continue to be high.
Scientists have found that Cushing’s disease and overproduction of cortisol decrease bone density. Although bone density can reduce with age, excess cortisol can speed up the rate at which bone loss happens. (13)
Other General Signs of High Cortisol Levels
According to doctors from the Mayo Clinic, having too much cortisol can also cause some of the following symptoms: (14)
- Frequent migraines and headaches
- Severe fatigue
- Impaired growth in children
- Muscle weakness
- Decreased cognitive function
Signs of High Cortisol in Women
Signs of High Cortisol in Men
Men who have too much cortisol can experience low sex drive and erectile dysfunction. (14)
Causes of High Cortisol Levels
What causes high cortisol levels? Let’s see how stress, pituitary gland dysfunction, and lifestyle choices can all cause cortisol levels to spike.
Too much stress
One of the most common reasons for showing signs of excess cortisol is stress.
Studies have shown that cortisol hormone significantly increases during stressful events. Excess cortisol can continue to be released for up to an hour after the end of the event. These high levels of the stress hormone can also cause an increase in body fat if they become chronic. (15)
Scientists can also measure cortisol levels to help determine how much stress a person is under. (16)
Pituitary gland problems
One of the reasons for showing signs of too much cortisol is due to excess production of adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH). This can sometimes occur because of a tumor in the pituitary gland. (1)
Adrenal gland tumors
Hypercortisolism (too much cortisol) can also be caused due to adrenal gland tumors. Treating the adrenal gland tumor lowers cortisol levels and alleviates some of the signs of Cushing’s syndrome. (17)
Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome could be due to benign or cancerous tumors in the lung, pancreas, thyroid, or thymus gland. Sometimes, the tumor can secrete high ACTH and cortisol levels could become elevated. (18)
A side effect of certain medications
Symptoms of an overproduction of cortisol hormone may appear if you take corticosteroid medication. Treatment with corticosteroids is usually prescribed to treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or asthma. (14)
Regular excess alcohol and high caffeine consumption
Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can cause cortisol levels to rise. One study involving over 3,600 men and women found that alcohol consumption increased cortisol secretion in the body. The increased cortisol levels happen because alcohol affects the HPA axis. (19)
Caffeine also increases cortisol secretion in people at rest or people undergoing mental stress. (32)
Lack of sleep
The journal Sleep reported that lack of sleep seems to mess cortisol secretion. In the study on participants who were sleep deprived, evening cortisol levels were elevated and the levels decreased slower than the control subjects. These elevations in cortisol levels increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and obesity. (20)
How to Lower High Cortisol Levels
It is important to reduce elevated cortisol levels to limit the side effects of high cortisol. What can you do if you show signs of too much cortisol?
Deal with stress and anxiety and laugh more
Finding strategies to cope with stress can help to bring down cortisol to normal levels and prevent its side effects.
Studies have found a direct link between chronic stress and increases in morning cortisol levels. Obviously, keeping stress levels manageable will also prevent cortisol levels from rising and impacting on your health. (21)
One study found that laughter can have a positive impact on elevated cortisol levels. Scientists found that laughing more could be a positive lifestyle change to help reduce stress and keep cortisol levels down. (22)
You may also find it helpful to know what to do to boost your mood as that can also help regulate cortisol levels.
Enjoy a healthy diet to lower cortisol levels
Foods that can increase cortisol are refined sugars, unhealthy carbs, and saturated fats. Healthy food choices such as increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables help balance your hormones better.
As well as eating the right foods to help control cortisol, it is essential to drink plenty of fluids. Researchers have found that your levels of hydration can affect cortisol. When the body is dehydrated, cortisol levels increase. (25)
Get enough quality sleep
One of the ways to prevent suffering from the symptoms of high cortisol is to get enough sleep.
The reason that not getting enough sleep impacts your health so much is that it affects the HPA axis and cortisol levels. Scientists have found that getting quality sleep is just as important as getting enough sleep to help maintain proper cortisol levels. (26)
Excess cortisol levels are just one of the ways a lack of sleep affects your body. Find out what else happens to your health when you don’t get enough sleep.
If you have trouble getting to sleep, find out which foods can help to get a better night’s sleep.
Moderate exercise to lower cortisol
Enjoying regular exercise can help to reduce your cortisol levels because it helps to cope with stress better.
The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation reported that moderate, low-intensity exercise has a positive effect on cortisol levels. However, intensive exercise increases cortisol secretion in the body. (27)
Interestingly, sweating after exercise can cause high concentrations of cortisol in the body and these concentrations are detected in hair. Doctors can test hair samples for cortisol to help diagnose conditions related to chronic stress. (33)
Mindfulness to bring down cortisol levels
One study on the effects of relaxation on stress levels found that integrative body-mind training helps to control cortisol secretion. Regularly taking time out to relax, control your breathing, and being aware of your body can help to deal with stress if done regularly. (28)
Supplements to Reduce Cortisol
If your health is suffering from an overproduction of cortisol, then taking supplements along with positive lifestyle changes can help.
Phosphatidylserine as a cortisol supplement
The supplement phosphatidylserine has a positive effect on your mind and memory and can help reduce cortisol production.
One small study found that phosphatidylserine supplements of 600 mg a day can lower cortisol levels after intensive exercising. This can be an effective way for athletes or people who enjoy regular intensive exercise to avoid the effects of too much cortisol. (29)
Ashwagandha supplement to reduce cortisol
Ashwagandha is a good supplement to provide support during times of emotional or mental stress. Because of this, ashwagandha supplementation can help reduce cortisol levels.
One study found that taking 300 mg of ashwagandha 2 times a day can help to reduce cortisol levels. In the study, the ashwagandha supplement was able to significantly lower cortisol levels without causing any adverse side effects. (30)
Learn more about the proven benefits and uses of ashwagandha.
Omega-3 supplement to lower cortisol
One study involving men found that taking 7.2 g of fish oil daily helped to lower cortisol levels over a 3-week period. The effect of omega-3 on stress levels was positive and the supplements helped to regulate the central nervous system. (31)
Other Ways to Lower High Cortisol Levels
Depending on the underlying cause of increased levels of cortisol, it may not be possible to decrease cortisol naturally.
If you show signs of having excess cortisol, your doctor will run various tests to check for Cushing’s syndrome.
Some conventional methods to treat an overproduction of cortisol can include any of the following depending on your condition:
- Lowering your corticosteroid medication
- Surgery to remove tumors that cause high ACTH or elevated cortisol levels
- Medications to help regulate and normalize cortisol secretion