Modern life is stressful. We constantly have important things in our mind; exams, children, long work days, etc. You know how it is, and you know how it feels when it stresses you.
In case you did not know what is happening inside your body when you’re experiencing a frustrating situation, it’s this: your cortisol levels rise , and with it, come certain effects that if not taken care of, can cause chronic ailments .
When you are stressed, the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This causes nerve and hormone signals to drive your adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol .
All this takes moments, and with enough stress can seriously affect the body. Find out the signs and symptoms of high cortisol levels, and how you can effectively deal with it.
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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 right level and use sugar and fat for energy
- Help the body to control and respond to stress
- Help regulate blood pressure
- Help regulate the immune system
Signs And Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels
The body usually 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, very little is produced.
- Weight gain is favored, especially around the abdomen and face.
- The skin becomes thinner and more fragile and takes longer to heal
- Appearance of acne, pimples and skin conditions.
- Increase in facial hair in women and irregular menstrual periods.
Low Cortisol Levels Symptoms
Symptoms of cortisol insufficiency include:
- Continuous tiredness and moments of mental fatigue that do not let you think clearly.
- Nausea and vomiting are present.
- A person with a normal diet may perceive a weight loss for no apparent reason.
- You feel muscle weakness and difficulty performing certain movements.
- Pains in the abdominal area are 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.
High Cortisol Levels And Cushing’s Disease
However, continuous high level of cortisol in your body have negative effects long-term. So it’s important to keep an eye on the signs and symptoms of high cortisol levels and see if they persist.
The condition in which the level of cortisol in your body is too high for a prolonged 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:
- Chronic Stress – Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone”.
- Adrenal problems – There are several rare disorders of the adrenal glands that can cause high levels of cortisol.
- Steroid medications – Some people take steroid medications that are similar to cortisol.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
- Severe depression and changing moods.
What are the symptoms of elevated cortisol levels (Cushing’s syndrome)?
1. Mood changes – such as being more irritable, depressed or anxious than normal.
It is normal to feel cranky or low from time to time, but if you feel like you are constantly depressed and / or anxious, then you may be experiencing the consequences of long-term effects on the production of cortisol, serotonin and dopamine.
2. Digestive problems
High levels of cortisol, causes the energy to be removed from the gastrointestinal tract, decreasing the production of enzymes needed to digest food, reducing 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
High levels of cortisol can be caused by a very stressful lifestyle. Too much stress can raise blood pressure, which can in turn cause an increased risk of heart disease.
4. Sleep problems
The production of cortisol is naturally high in the early morning to help you wake up. However, people who chronically stress their adrenal glands to produce too much 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 of the skin and wrinkles
As if high levels of cortisol did not do enough damage inside, they also dehydrate the skin. Dehydrated skin means premature wrinkles.
Other symptoms are:
- Aches and pains, especially back pain.
- Increased susceptibility to infections . Cortisol can weaken the effectiveness of the immune system
- Facial hair in women. Some women notice an unusual growth of facial hair product of high cortisol levels .
- Appearance of purple or pink stretcmarks , similar to those observed in some pregnant women.
In most cases (apart from when steroid medication is the cause), symptoms develop gradually. Diagnosis is often not clear for quite some time, because most symptoms can also be caused by other common problems.
It is worth noting that the fact that you may be experiencing one or even some of the signs and symptoms of high cortisol, it does not necessarily mean that you have elevated cortisol levels. The above symptoms may be associated with other medical conditions. It’s always best to visit your doctor if you are worried about how you’re 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 in which 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 destroyer. If I feel frustrated or angry, then I know that running is safe to clear my head. The exercise also helps increase muscle mass and increase the brain ‘s 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 cortisol levels in the blood by 30% in one hour. Try alternative non-caffeinated beverages for two weeks, and see how you feel.
3. A deeper and longer dream
A good night’s sleep allows your body to relax and cortisol levels to decrease. If you have trouble sleeping, you can read this article:
4. Keep your blood sugar level stable
Donuts and cookies are delicious, but try to avoid eating too much of them. Excess refined sugar and simple carbohydrates increase insulin production.
Enjoy eating little and often, and food that is balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats, such as olive oil, nuts and seeds (nuts and seeds have amazing health benefits).
Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets.
5. Drink water
Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water . Drinking a glass when you wake up and before going to bed will help keep your cortisol levels down.
6. Take anti-stress supplements
Vitamins of the B complex, minerals such as calcium, magnesium and chromium, zinc and antioxidants such as 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 oats.
7. Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes
When it comes to relaxing and reducing cortisol levels go for calm with soft music or mediation.
It is easy to get caught up in a stressful lifestyle. We can’t always help our circumstances and what we have to face. However, you can take methods, such as the above, particularly if you are experiencing many signs and symptoms of high cortisol. Use them to help you cope with stress, and reduce cortisol levels when they are elevated.
But for now, you do not have to do anything drastic. Just take a deep breath, light some scented candles and relax. Life is too short to sweat the small things. For more useful information on how to relieve stress and anxiety see our articles:
- The role of cortisol in our body – Healthdirect
- Cushing’s syndrome – Mayo Clinic
- The cortisol test – MedlinePlus