How does your body tell you that your cortisol levels are high?

elevated cortisol

Too much cortisol levels don't go unnoticed.

Any stress will cause the release of stress hormones.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid steroid hormone produced by the cortex of the adrenal glands in response to a hormone called ACTH. It is essential for your health and is often an indicator of stress levels in the body. High cortisol level is also known as Cushing Syndrome and can cause many symptoms of chronic stress problems ranging from anxiety to diabetes.

Cortisol Response to Stress

Cortisol is a critical hormone in the body's mechanism to mitigate stress. In these times, the body releases cortisol after the release of adrenaline to maintain the state of high alert. Following the release is an increase in heart rate and insulin levels for rapid glucose breakdown, which supplies energy that encourages other parts of your body to react appropriately during the fight or flight response. Also, it regulates blood pressure and sugar levels, maintains the sleep-wake cycle, and aids in reducing inflammation.

Normal Cortisol Levels and How They are Tested

Cortisol blood levels exhibit a diurnal variation or a 24hr cycle. The cortisol levels rise and peak in the early morning at about 6-8 am before steadily declining throughout the rest of the day. It gets to its lowest point around midnight. The UCLA Endocrine surgery normal cortisol blood level is taken from a blood sample at 8 am between 6 to 23mcg/dl but can slightly vary in different laboratories. Besides the blood test, cortisol urine test and cortisol saliva test can also be useful.

A cortisol level check is determined by a Hydrocortisone test (a cortisol test) and is essential to measure adrenal and pituitary gland functions. In the case of a cortisol imbalance, the body has its means of regulation and homeostasis restoration.

Welzo offers a private at-home Cortisol blood test, if you would like to check on your cortisol levels, order our test by clicking here

How the Body Regulates Cortisol

The human body has an elaborate system in charge of cortisol regulation. This system involves two major organs; the hypothalamus, an area of the brain responsible for hormonal secretions that control other biological processes like body temperature, thirst, heart rate etc... and the pituitary gland, a small gland just below the brain. They both regulate cortisol hormone production in the adrenal cortex through a negative feedback mechanism. Based on cortisol levels, the hypothalamus releases or inhibits Corticotropin Releasing Hormone(CRH), which induces the release or inhibition of Adrenocorticotropic hormone by the pituitary gland, which in turn, stimulates or inhibits the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Therefore, to maintain optimal cortisol levels, the organs involved in this chain of reactions must be fully functional and in sync with one another. A disruption in the sequence could result in high or low levels of cortisol.

Causes of High Cortisol Levels

High levels of cortisol over an extended period are known as Cushing's Syndrome, a rare condition with known causes which include

Physical and emotional stress.

As earlier mentioned, stress can increase the serum level of cortisol via the body's response to stress which involves increased secretion of ACTH by the pituitary gland.

Pituitary gland dysfunction

Dysfunction in the pituitary gland, such as hyperpituitarism and pituitary tumours and adenomas, could lead to overproduction of ACTH, causing high cortisol levels.

Adrenal gland tumours

Hyperplasia of the adrenal glands, which is an uncontrolled, excessive growth of adrenal tissue, forms tumours which cause an overproduction of cortisol hormone in the adrenal glands.

Ectopic ACTH-producing tumours

These tumours are usually found in the pituitary gland. Still, in some cases, they can be found in the lungs and other parts of the body where they secrete ACTH, causing the excessive production of cortisol.

Corticosteroid Medication

High cortisol levels can manifest from the side effects of large amounts of corticosteroid medications like prednisolone or prednisone, perhaps taken during treatment for other conditions such as arthritis and asthma. Oral contraceptives have also been found to cause an increase in cortisol levels.

Oestrogen therapy and pregnancy

Increased levels of oestrogen in circulation can also lead to high cortisol levels.

As most of these causes are internal and systemic, how would you know when your cortisol levels are high? The body catches on quite and tries to tell us to mitigate the impact on time and avoid irreversible damage.

Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

The body communicates with us through signs and symptoms. When cortisol levels are high, these symptoms manifest, our body's very own way of telling us.

The signs and symptoms include

Weight Gain

elevated cortisol levels causing weight gain

High cortisol levels affect fat deposition. According to a study, there is an inverse relationship between cortisol and HDL cholesterol. High levels of cortisol affect peripheral cholesterol metabolism to change HDL cholesterol formation. It causes weight gain through central fat deposition and puts one at risk of cardiovascular issues.

Easy Bruising and Purple Stretch Marks

Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory hormone, and its dysfunction is likely to result in widespread inflammation following the reactivation of an acute pro-inflammatory stress response.

Muscle Weakness and Extreme Fatigue

When the body begins to experience extreme fatigue and muscle weakness, it could be trying to tell you about potentially high cortisol levels. This is because cortisol in high concentrations affects the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates in muscle tissues and propagates gluconeogenesis and the release of its substrates from peripheral tissues by breaking down contractile proteins and mobilising amino acids, which cause muscle weakness and fatigue. In more severe cases, long-term cortisol elevation could cause fast twitch, type 2 muscle atrophy, and bone atrophy.


As cortisol levels spike during stress, its effects on emotional responses include depression, anger and irritability. Another article links depression to cortisol hypersecretion and shows the relationship between cortisol and mental health. Therefore when you begin to feel excessively angry or depressed and irritable, then maybe it's time to take that test.

Slow Healing

Stress-induced formation of glucocorticoids brings about slow healing by interfering with cytokine production. Cytokine, an anti-inflammatory substance, facilitates healing. In its absence or in lower concentrations, inflammations last longer, and injuries are slower to heal.

High Blood Pressure

Cortisol, when released into the bloodstream, most likely as a response to stress, causes elevations in heart rate and blood pressure. Long-term effects lead to other cardiovascular issues such as hypertension.


Elevated cortisol levels have also been shown to damage and shrink parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, and could induce migraines through a complex interaction with the central nervous system.

Reducing Cortisol Levels

To reduce cortisol levels in the long term, some lifestyle changes need to be made. Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, supplements such as magnesium, vitamin B12, Vitamin C and folic acid that aid in cortisol metabolism, reduction of caffeine intake, quality sleep and regular exercise all play active roles in reducing cortisol levels and maintaining good health.

To view the Welzo at-home Cortisol Blood Test, click here

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