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8 Signs of High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is an essential hormone in the human body that performs many different functions in the body, such as controlling the biorhythm, maintaining metabolism, controlling blood sugar, etc.

Role of cortisol for health

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. When your adrenal glands secrete cortisol, it passes through the bloodstream throughout your body. Almost every cell in the body contains cortisol receptors, so its effects are varied and wide-ranging.  [ref. 1] 

Therefore, we can say that cortisol is an essential hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. He plays many important roles, including:

  • Regulation of the body's stress response
  • Helps control your body's use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates or metabolism 
  • Suppression of inflammation
  • Regulation of blood pressure
  • Regulation of blood sugar
  • Helps control your sleep-wake cycle

Your body constantly monitors cortisol levels to maintain stable levels (homeostasis). Higher-than-normal or lower-than-normal cortisol levels can be harmful to your health. Unfortunately, many people live with too high levels of cortisol without knowing it, and so their health suffers severely.

How does the body control cortisol levels?

The human body has a complex system for regulating cortisol levels.

Your hypothalamus, a small part of the brain involved in hormonal regulation, and your pituitary gland regulate cortisol production in the adrenal glands. When cortisol levels in the blood drop, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which directs the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates your adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol. In order for its levels to be always optimal, it is important that all these glands function normally.  [ref. 2] 

8 Signs of High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol (along with its partner epinephrine) is best known for its involvement in the fight-or-flight reaction and for temporarily increasing energy production at the expense of processes not necessary for immediate survival. The resulting biochemical and hormonal imbalances (ideally) are resolved due to hormonally managed negative feedback, but if this does not occur, adverse effects occur. [ref. 3] 

When cortisol in the blood is consistently high for a long period of time due to chronic stress or a genetic disorder, or any other reason the following symptoms may occur:

  1. Weight gain, especially in the face and abdomen - it is mostly noticeable in adults, especially in men over 50 years of age, but it may also be present in others. 
  2. Respiratory disorders - a little-known fact is that cortisol keeps inflammation within normal limits, especially in the lungs and respiratory system
  3. Anxiety is a feeling that can be mild or strong, and causes you to constantly experience tension. This sensation can be caused by elevated cortisol levels. 
  4. Muscle weakness in the upper arms and thighs This occurs due to high levels of cortisol, which break down muscle proteins in the legs and convert them into sugar as an energy source. Next, insulin converts this sugar from the blood into belly/other fat.
  5. High blood sugar, which often passes into type 2 diabetes - Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by using protein stores through gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help the individual fight off or escape the stressor. However, elevated cortisol in the long term constantly produces glucose, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels.
  6. High blood pressure (hypertension) - stress causes high blood pressure, which occurs by increasing cortisol. If your brain detects a threat, it will trigger a release of cortisol to narrow the arteries, and trigger the adrenaline rush to provide the necessary energy in a flash.
  7. Back pain and headaches When cortisol levels are high for a long period of time, your adrenal glands begin to become exhausted. This increases prolactin levels, increasing the body's sensitivity to pain such as back and muscle pain. Excessive cortisol has also been shown to shrink parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and can trigger migraines.
  8. Acid reflux - Heartburn is an unpleasant burning sensation in the chest caused by stomach acid moving up to the throat (acid reflux). If you often have acid reflux, it is possible that the cause is high levels of cortisol. Cortisol affects some components of the digestive system so that your energy is directed to attack or defend the body. In the short term, this effect may be necessary, but in the long run, high cortisol disrupts the production of enzymes and stomach acid, leading to negative consequences.
  1. Role of cortisol for health
  2. How does the body control cortisol levels?
  3. 8 Signs of High Cortisol Levels


Cortisol is a multifaceted and multifunctional hormone that is important for the science of nutrition and good health on many levels. Understanding its functions, including its behavior and relationships with other biochemical components, the immune system and the endocrine system, is crucial for controlling elevated cortisol levels as well as conditions characterized by it.


  1. Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress -BMB Reports | Korea Science
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