High Cortisol Levels

High Cortisol Levels: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal gland and is an important hormone for managing stress. However, high cortisol levels may lead to various symptoms.

What Does High Cortisol Mean?

Cortisol is a hormone mainly secreted inside the human body by adrenal glands. The main function of cortisol is to help the body in responding to stressful conditions. Apart from helping in stressful conditions, cortisol also plays an important role in various body functions. These include immunity modulation, reducing inflammation, maintaining blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, and improving memory.

The normal level of cortisol depends upon various factors including the time of measurement, age, sex, type of sample, whether blood or urine and the analytical method used to determine the levels of cortisol.

The value of cortisol changes according to the circadian rhythm. The level of cortisol is highest in the morning and lowest at night. The normal level of cortisol is 10 to 20 mcg/dL between 6:00 am to 8:00 am while the value at 4:00 pm is approximately 3 to 10 mcg/dL.

When the person wakes up with a normal or increased level which does not drop down by evening or when the person goes to bed indicates high cortisol levels. Further tests are done to confirm the cause of the increased level of cortisol.

What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol?

Following are some of the symptoms of high cortisol levels;

Abnormal Blood Sugar

Cortisol infuses glucose to the body in case of stressful conditions. However, an increased level of cortisol continuously produces glucose. This results in an increased level of glucose in the blood. A high level of cortisol also reduces the sensitivity of cells towards insulin leading to further increase in glucose levels.

Weight Gain

High level of cortisol causes weight gain especially in the abdominal area. This may probably be due to two reasons. First, the fat cells present in the abdominal area have a high number of cortisol receptors as compared to fat cells in other areas. Further, glucose does not reach the cells and the body gets exhausted due to lack of energy. This may lead to increased hunger and sugar cravings.

Cardiovascular Problems

High levels of cortisol narrow down the arteries. This leads to increased blood pressure and increased risk of plaque build-up. This may also cause damage to arteries.

Digestive Disorders

When the body is under stress and cortisol is released, the digestive functions come to a halt until the stress gets over. However, prolonged high levels of cortisol may have a negative effect on the digestive disorder.

Compromised Immunity

The function of cortisol is to reduce inflammation. This is done by suppressing the immune system. In the short run, this function of cortisol seems beneficial. However, in conditions with a prolonged increased level of cortisol, there is an increased risk of cold and contagious disease due to compromised immunity.


Various other symptoms of high cortisol level include muscle weakness, slow healing, irritability, headache, thinning skin, irritability, acne, poor concentration, and fatigue.

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

Following are some of the important causes of high cortisol;


Prolonged stress may lead to high levels of cortisol. Cortisol is known to shut off the functions that are considered non-essential. Thus, in certain cases, it creates havoc on various body functions.


Cortisol level may be increased due to the side effects of medications. Contraceptive increases the level of cortisol. Steroids such as dexamethasone, prednisone, and methylprednisolone.

Estrogen Levels

Increased estrogen levels may lead to increased cortisol. The estrogen level gets increased during pregnancy or as a part of treatment known as hormonal replacement therapy.

Adrenal Gland Tumors

Increased cortisol level may also be due to tumor, whether malignant or benign, in the adrenal gland. This may lead to Cushing syndrome.

Pituitary gland disorders: The pituitary gland releases various hormones that control the secretion of other hormones. Increased levels of the pituitary hormone due to various disorders may lead to increased secretion of cortisol from the adrenal gland.

What Are The Effects Of High Cortisol?

Following effects are experienced by the body due to high cortisol;

  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Osteoporosis
  • Diabetes and insulin resistance
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Irregular menstruation and ovulation problems
  • Increased risk of getting contagious diseases

How To Treat High Cortisol?

The treatment for high cortisol levels is done according to the cause. Following are the treatment options for managing high cortisol levels:

Reduced Medication Use

If the level of cortisol rises due to the side effect of a medication, your doctor will stop the medications or provide you with an alternative medication that does not increase the cortisol level.


Various medications are used to reduce the secretion of cortisol. These medications are mitotane and metyrapone.

Other Treatments

Other treatment options include Surgery and Radiotherapy in case the cause is a tumor.

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