Stressing? Are your cortisol levels too high?

Stressing? Are your cortisol levels too high?

by Chelsea Garcia, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist

  What exactly is cortisol and how does it affect you?

Cortisol is known as the body’s “stress hormone.” During times of stress cortisol levels increase within the body to help your body deal with said stress. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that the body synthesizes naturally and in adequate levels, it regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body. Metabolically it helps convert fats, carbs, and proteins into useable energy and it also helps the immune system respond to infections or viruses. However, higher than normal levels of cortisol can cause a lot of problems within the body.

What causes high cortisol levels?

High cortisol levels are caused by stress, adrenal gland tumors, pituitary gland issues, or medication side effects. People who are under chronic stress will most likely experience high levels of cortisol. When you are stressed your body triggers a release of epinephrine and cortisol. Its preparing your body for what is known as the flight or fight response. Most of the time after this stressor has passed your cortisol levels return to baseline, but for some that are under stress almost constantly the levels don’t go back down. When they stay elevated and if they stay this way for a long period of time it can lead to obesity, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.

Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

  • Unhealthy cravings and weight gain (around midsection, upper back, face)

  • High cortisol levels cause you to crave sugar as cortisol increases blood sugar levels and in turn decreases insulin production and puts you at risk for diabetes. Having high glucose levels makes your blood sugar drop and then makes you crave unhealthy foods leading to unwanted weight gain despite exercising.

  • Acne
  • High cortisol causes high prolactin levels leading to worsened acne and facial hair growth.
  • Thinning skin
  • Easy bruising
  • Flushed face
  • Illness and slowed healing
  • High cortisol causes the immune system to become weakened and unable to fight off infections or minor injuries. As long as cortisol is high the body will respond much slower to healing.
  • Muscle weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • If you still feel tired even though you slept well or maybe you toss and turn all night because your body never quite fully relaxed. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning around 9 am and are lowest around midnight. If your levels are not returning to normal at night then it depletes the adrenal glands making your body predisposed to chronic fatigue.
  •  Irritability
  • If you are feeling more down than usual it might be because cortisol levels are too high causing serotonin to decrease and cause feelings of depression.
  • High blood pressure
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • High levels of cortisol deplete your adrenal glands and prolactin levels increase causing the brain to be hypersensitive to pain.
  • Gut/G.I. problems
  • Having high levels of cortisol can cause a huge disruption to your gastrointestinal tract leading to nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and constipation.
  • Nervousness/paranoia
  • Natural Ways to Combat High Cortisol Levels

    Get the Right Amount of Sleep: Don’t drink caffeine after 2 or 3 pm in the afternoon. Try to limit distractions before bedtime like your cell phone or TV.

    Exercise: Stay active throughout the day to expend your daily energy. Don’t exercise too much or too often because then cortisol levels could stay elevated. Exercise in the right amounts will be helpful in combating stress levels and releasing necessary endorphins.

    Recognize Your Stressors: Stressful thoughts can really take up a lot of thinking during your day. Instead try and think about the positive aspects of your day instead of the negative. Be mindful and aware of how your thoughts are affecting you. Make plans to deal with and confront the problem to resolve it instead of letting the thoughts spiral out of control.

    Learn to Relax: Try some relaxation exercises like meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing or schedule a day at the spa for a massage and some pampering to rest and recharge. Self care is the best care.

    Don’t Forget to Have Fun: Do you have a fun hobby that you might have been neglecting or maybe one you’ve always wanted to try? Participating in fun activities or new hobbies can help decrease stress levels.

    Maintain Healthy Relationships:

    Having your friends and family around for support during hard times can really help you cope with stress.

    Eat a Healthy and Balanced Diet: What you put in your body is very important and will affect how you feel. If you eat bad you will probably feel bad. Eating healthy will improve your quality of life and help you reduce your cortisol levels.

    If you would like some more information about how to keep up your health and well-being and decrease stress levels give us a call to schedule your FREE consultation at 310-582-8212 or email me directly at


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