High Cortisol: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson discusses the symptoms and causes of elevated levels of cortisol, your body's stress hormone. We'll talk about possible treatments and other things you can do when you are feeling stressed out.

High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that your body releases in response to stress. Chronic stress or nervousness is not good for your body. Cortisol is an essential part of the body's fight or flight response, and helps give you the necessary energy to react in stressful or dangerous situations.

During this response, more cortisol is released, as well as other hormones like adrenaline, and your body automatically pumps more blood to major muscle groups (in case you need to run faster!), and directly blood away from the more nonessential functions like digestion and the immune system. If you're in the woods and see a bear, your fight or flight response will kick in, and thanks to cortisol, you will have the sudden burst of energy to run away faster than you normally would!

However, if your body is continuously pumping out cortisol at high levels, this is bad news. Too much can lead to depression, damage to certain organs in your body, heart problems, and lowered immune functioning. Plus, no one likes to feel stressed all the time, right?


High levels of cortisol are related to general feelings of stress, but it may take time until you feel the effects of any of the symptoms. Your doctor can do a saliva test to measure the levels in your body.

If you're having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, you might have too much cortisol in your system. Or, if you do fall asleep and still feel tired the next day, high levels of cortisol might be contributing to chronic fatigue. You may feel like you really need that third cup of coffee to get going in the morning.

High levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, especially around your belly. It can also interfere with the immune system, making you more susceptible to catching illnesses. Recovery time from illnesses and injuries may be increased as well. Too much cortisol can also damage muscle and bone.

Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands are functioning lower than normal because of prolonged stress. In this situation, they are unable to produce the necessary amounts of cortisol. In very serious cases, adrenal fatigue will make it difficult for you to be awake for more than a few hours at a time. It produces unpleasant symptoms such as acne and hair loss.


High levels of cortisol can be caused by cushing syndrome, which is a condition where your body produces abnormally high levels of the hormone. Cushing syndrome may develop from external causes, such as taking certain steroids that spike your body's cortisol levels.

It might also result from internal causes, as when your body produces too much cortisol on its own. This can happen if you have certain adrenal gland diseases or a tumor. Its job is to regulate stress levels, so if it malfunctions, it could produce too much cortisol in your body.

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