What Are the Symptoms of High Cortisol and What Do They Mean?

Medically Reviewed By Alan Carter, Pharm.D.
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High cortisol is when your body produces too much of the steroid hormone cortisol. Symptoms include easy bruising, proximal muscle weakness, and slowed healing. There are many reasons high cortisol may occur. They include constant stress and prolonged use of corticosteroids. Doctors can typically treat the condition with cortisol-inhibiting drugs, such as mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone).

Read on to learn more about high cortisol symptoms and what the levels of cortisol in your body mean.

What are the symptoms of high cortisol?

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Common signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:

People with high cortisol may also experience:

  • Hirsutism: This is a condition in those who were assigned female at birth in which excess hair grows in places it usually does not, such as the face and back.
  • Proximal muscle weakness: This is when the muscles closest to the center of the body become weak. These muscles include those of the pelvis, upper arms, and legs. 
  • Osteoporosis: This is a bone condition in which bone mineral density and bone mass decrease. It can lead to severe back pain, a loss of height, and a stooped posture.
  • Diabetes: This is a chronic condition that affects how your body uses blood sugar. Symptoms include blurry vision, extreme tiredness, and numbness.
  • Hypertension: This is when your blood pressure is too high. It can cause early morning headaches and irregular heart rhythms, among other symptoms.

Experts use the term Cushing syndrome to describe the main signs and symptoms of high cortisol. 

Contact your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of high cortisol.

Read more about Cushing’s syndrome.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol, or “stress hormone,” is a hormone that forms when your adrenal glands synthesize cholesterol. It has a regulatory effect on several different bodily functions, including:

  • stress response
  • metabolism
  • inflammatory response
  • immune function

Many systems in your body also use cortisol to perform specific tasks. These systems include:

  • musculoskeletal
  • respiratory 
  • nervous
  • immune
  • cardiovascular 
  • reproductive

Blood cortisol levels are naturally highest in the morning and lowest at night. They peak at about 8 A.M. and reach a minimum during the early phase of sleep at night.

What do high cortisol levels mean?

Your adrenal glands work with two of your brain’s structures, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, to produce and secrete cortisol. Experts call this production network the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. 

If the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis fails to regulate itself properly, excess cortisol production may occur. This may cause symptoms of Cushing syndrome.

Cushing syndrome most commonly affects adults between the ages of 25 to 40. However, it can also occur in children.

Learn how to lower cortisol levels naturally.

What causes high cortisol levels?

There are different factors that can cause high cortisol levels.

Stress

When you face a stressful situation, your brain sends distress signals to your adrenal glands.

Your adrenal glands then increase the production of cortisol to help your body mount an appropriate stress response. Your adrenal glands also increase the production of the hormones responsible for accelerating heart rate and fuel production.

Many people experience brief periods of stress from time to time. Others experience chronic or prolonged stress.

Chronic stress can lead to serious health issues and can cause:

Read about tips for stress management.

Glucocorticoids 

Glucocorticoids are artificial steroid hormones. They are a class of corticosteroids.

Types include:

  • dexamethasone
  • prednisone
  • prednisolone
  • triamcinolone
  • methylprednisolone

Doctors typically administer glucocorticoids as part of treatment for inflammatory conditions, such as:

Although glucocorticoids are generally safe, taking them in high doses over a long period of time can cause symptoms of high cortisol levels.

Tumors 

Some types of tumors can also contribute to high cortisol. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) lists them as follows:

Pituitary tumors

Pituitary tumors form on the pituitary gland. They can cause the gland to produce excess adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Excess ACTH, in turn, can cause the adrenal glands to make more cortisol.

Pituitary tumors that secrete excessive ACTH are responsible for 8 in 10 cases of Cushing syndrome that are not the result of glucocorticoid medications.

The medical name for this type of Cushing syndrome is Cushing disease.

Ectopic ACTH-producing tumors

A number of non-pituitary tumors can also cause high cortisol. Researchers use the term ectopic tumors to describe these tumors.

Ectopic tumors can form in various places, including the:

  • lungs 
  • pancreas
  • thyroid
  • thymus

Ectopic tumors can become cancerous.

Adrenal tumors

These are tumors that develop on the adrenal gland. They can stimulate the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol.

When should you see a doctor for high cortisol?

Visit your doctor if you have symptoms of high cortisol, such as extreme fatigue, weight gain, or bruising easily.

Your doctor will measure the level of cortisol in your blood, urine, or saliva to see if you have the condition.

Frequently asked questions

The following are other questions people have asked about high cortisol. They have been reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD.

How do you get your cortisol levels down?

Stress reducers, such as exercise and sufficient rest, may help. Your doctor may also give you cortisol-inhibiting drugs, such as mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone).

How long does it take for cortisol levels to return to normal?

Cortisol levels can remain elevated for several hours after a stress response. 

Does anxiety raise cortisol levels?

Emotional states, such as anxiety and stress, can cause cortisol levels to rise. If you constantly have these emotions, you may experience symptoms of high cortisol.

Summary

Cortisol, or stress hormone, is a hormone that forms when your adrenal glands synthesize cholesterol. It has a regulatory effect on stress response and several other bodily functions. It also helps the nervous system and various other systems in the body remain functional.

High cortisol occurs when cortisol levels rise atypically. It can cause weight gain, slow healing, and muscle weakness. It can also cause a flushed face, irritability, and headaches.

Many factors can contribute to high cortisol and its related symptoms. They include stress, persistent glucocorticoid use, and pituitary tumors.

Your doctor may recommend exercise and other stress management techniques if you have high cortisol. They may also give you cortisol-inhibiting drugs, such as mitotane (Lysodren) and metyrapone (Metopirone).

Contact your doctor if you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of high cortisol.

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Medical Reviewer: Alan Carter, Pharm.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 22
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