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What does High Cortisol do to our body?

Permit me a space in your widely read column to ask what high cortisol does to our body. I read somewhere that it causes a…

Permit me a space in your widely read column to ask what high cortisol does to our body. I read somewhere that it causes a lot of stress.

Mr Benedict V.

Thanks, Benedict, for your kind words. Let me first inform you and other readers what a Cortisol is. It is a stress hormone and a steroid hormone that is produced from a structure called Adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is important for your health, but too much of it can wreak havoc on your body and cause several unwanted symptoms.

What are the symptoms of high Cortisol?

  • Weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
  • Weight gain and rounding of the face
  • Acne and thinning skin
  • Easy bruising and flushed face
  • Slowed healing and muscle weakness
  • Severe fatigue and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and high blood pressure
  • Headache

What do high Cortisol levels mean?

A high Cortisol level can mean several things. High Cortisol may be referred to as Cushing syndrome. This condition results from your body making too much Cortisol.

Some common symptoms of Cushing syndrome include:

  • Fatty deposits in the midsection, face, or between the shoulders
  • Purple stretch marks
  • Weight gain and slow-healing injuries
  • Thinning skin

Several things can contribute to the development of high Cortisol among them are:


Stress triggers a combination of signals from both hormones and nerves. These signals cause your adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The result is an increase in heart rate and energy. It is your body’s way of preparing itself for potentially dangerous or harmful situations.

Cortisol also helps to limit any functions that are not essential in a fight-or-flight situation. Once the threat passes, your hormones return to their usual levels. This whole process can be a lifesaver. But when you are under constant stress, this response does not always turn off.

Long-term exposure to Cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost all your body’s processes, increasing your risk of many health issues.

Pituitary gland issues

The pituitary gland is a tiny organ at the base of your brain that controls the secretion of various hormones. Issues with the pituitary gland can cause it to under- or over-produce hormones, including adrenocorticotropic hormone. This is the hormone that triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

Pituitary conditions that can cause high cortisol levels include:

  • Hyperpituitarism (overactive pituitary gland)
  • Benign pituitary tumors, including adenomas
  • Cancerous pituitary tumors

Adrenal gland tumors

Your adrenal glands are located above each kidney. Adrenal gland tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) and range in size. Both types can secrete high levels of hormones, including Cortisol. This can lead to Cushing syndrome.

Medication side effects

Certain medications can cause an increase in cortisol levels. For example, oral contraceptives are link to increased Cortisol in the blood. Corticosteroid medications used to treat asthma, arthritis, and certain cancers.


Circulating estrogen can increase cortisol levels in your blood. This can be caused by estrogen therapy and pregnancy. It is the most common cause of high Cortisol levels in women.

Treatment and control

Everyone has high cortisol from time to time. It is part of your body’s natural response to threats of harm or danger. But having high cortisol over a longer period can have lasting effects on your health as discussed above. Seeing a doctor can help to narrow down the underlying cause of high level of Cortisol and help to get it to a safe level.


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