Modern life is stressful. We constantly have important things on our mind. Deadlines, exams, children, long work days, etc. You know how it is, and you know how it feels when it stresses you out, but in case you didn’t know what is happening inside your body when you are experiencing a frustrating situation, this is what is happening: your cortisol levels rise , and with it, come certain effects that if not cared for, can cause chronic diseases .

When stressed, the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This causes nerve and hormonal signals to propel your adrenal glands located at the top of the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol .

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, more specifically a glucocorticoid that is secreted by the adrenal glands (a hormone is a chemical that is made in one part of the body, but passes into the bloodstream and has effects on other parts of the body) .

What does cortisol do?

We have two small adrenal glands that are on top of each kidney. We all need cortisol to live, and small doses released into the body can have positive effects, such as:

  • Help the body balance the effect of insulin to keep blood sugar at the proper level and use sugar and fat for energy
  • Help the body manage and respond to stress
  • Help regulate blood pressure
  • Help regulate the immune system

What happens when there is too much cortisol?

The body generally produces the correct amount of cortisol. In a condition like Cushing’s syndrome, too much is produced, but in a condition like Addison’s disease, too little is produced.

Symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  • Weight gain is favored, especially around the abdomen and face.
  • Skin becomes thinner and more fragile which takes time to heal
  • Appearance of acne, pimples and skin conditions.
  • Increased facial hair in women and irregular menstrual periods.

And when cortisol is low?

Symptoms of insufficient cortisol include:

  • Continuous tiredness and moments of mental fatigue that make it difficult to think clearly.
  • Nausea and vomiting are present.
  • A person with a normal diet may perceive weight loss for no apparent reason.
  • You feel muscle weakness and difficulty in performing certain movements.
  • Pain in the abdominal area is frequent and often persistent.

If you experience any of these symptoms, your doctor may suggest that you have a blood test to measure your cortisol levels.

However, the continued high level of cortisol in your body has negative effects. The condition in which the level of cortisol in your body is too high for a long period of time is called Cushing’s syndrome.

Some causes of Cushing’s syndrome are:

Some of the main triggers of Cushing’s syndrome are frequently:

  1. Chronic Stress – Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone.”
  2. Adrenal problems – There are several rare disorders of the adrenal glands that can cause high levels of cortisol.
  3. Steroid medications – Some people take steroid medications that are similar to cortisol.
  4. Excessive alcohol consumption.
  5. Severe depression and changeable moods.

What are the symptoms of elevated cortisol levels (Cushing’s syndrome)?

1. Mood swings – such as being more irritable, depressed or anxious than normal.

It is normal to feel grumpy or low from time to time, but if you feel like you are constantly depressed and / or anxious, then you could be experiencing the consequences of the long-term effects on the production of cortisol, serotonin and dopamine.

2. Digestive problems

High levels of cortisol, causes energy to be withdrawn from the gastrointestinal tract, decreases the production of enzymes necessary to digest food, and reduces the absorption of minerals and nutrients. And in fact stress is one of the reasons that the digestive system does not work properly.

3. Heart disease and high blood pressure

As we have learned, high levels of cortisol can be caused by a very stressful lifestyle. Too much stress can raise your blood pressure, which in turn can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.

4. Sleep problems

Cortisol production is naturally high in the early morning to help you wake up. However, people who chronically stress their adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol alter their cortisol levels so that it is low in the morning when they wake up, rather than high.

5. Weight gain

Cortisol stimulates the appetite and cravings for calorie-dense sweet foods and high-carbohydrate foods. So if you have high cortisol levels in your body for a long period of time, chances are you’re going to want to eat fat and high calorie foods.

6. Aging skin and wrinkles

As if the high levels of cortisol weren’t doing enough damage on the inside, they also dehydrate the skin. Dehydrated skin means premature wrinkles.

Other symptoms are:

  • Aches and pains  especially back pain
  • Increased susceptibility to infection – Cortisol can weaken the effectiveness of the immune system
  • Facial hair in women. Some women notice unusual facial hair growth from elevated cortisol levels .
  • Appearance of purple or pink stretch marks , similar to those seen in some pregnant women.

In most cases (apart from when steroid medication is the cause), symptoms develop gradually. The diagnosis is often unclear for quite some time, because most symptoms can also be caused by other common problems.

It’s worth noting that just because you may be experiencing one or even some of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have elevated cortisol levels. The above symptoms may be associated with other medical conditions. It is always best to visit your doctor if you are concerned about how you are feeling.

If you feel like you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then it may be time to take a look at your lifestyle and the ways you can modify them in order to lower your cortisol levels .

How to lower cortisol production

1. Exercise regularly

A good workout is a natural stress buster. If I am feeling frustrated or angry, then I know that running is safe to clear my head. Exercise also helps build muscle mass and increase brain production of serotonin and dopamine, which are brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression.

2. Eliminate caffeine

200 mg of caffeine is said to increase blood cortisol levels by 30% in an hour. Try alternative caffeine-free drinks for two weeks, and see how you feel.

3. A deeper and longer sleep

A good night’s sleep allows your body to relax and cortisol levels to decrease. If you have trouble sleeping, you can read these articles:

4. Keep your blood sugar level stable

Both donuts and cookies are delicious, try to avoid eating too much of them. Excess refined sugar and simple carbohydrates increase insulin production.

Enjoy eating little and often and eating foods that are balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates, and good fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds (nuts and seeds have amazing health benefits).

Diets high in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets.

5. Drink water

Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water . Drinking a glass when you wake up and before you go to bed will help keep your cortisol levels down.

6. Take anti-stress supplements

B vitamins, minerals like calcium, magnesium, and chromium, zinc, and antioxidants like vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, grape seed extract, and CoQ 10.

There are a number of plants and herbs that can be used to treat stress and anxiety such as St. John’s wort, chamomile, and oatmeal.

7. Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes

When it comes to relaxing and lowering cortisol levels, calm down with soft music or mediation.

It’s easy to get caught up in a stressful lifestyle. We cannot always help our circumstances and what we have to deal with. However, you can take methods, like the ones above, to help you deal with stress, and therefore keep lowering cortisol levels when they are high.

But for now, you don’t have to do anything drastic. Just take a deep breath, light some scented candles, and relax. Life is too short to suffer for small things. For more useful information on how to relieve stress and anxiety see our articles:

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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