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10 Warning Signs You Have High Cortisol Level And How To Lower It

Modern day life is stressful. We constantly have important things on our mind. Deadlines, exams, kids, long work days, etc. You know how it is, and you know how you feel when you get stressed, but in case you didn’t already know what’s happening inside your body when you are experiencing a frustrating situation.

This is what’s going on: when you are stressed your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This causes nerve and hormonal signals to prompt your adrenal glands, located at the top of your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

What is Cortisol and what does it do?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, more specifically a glucocorticoid which is secreted by the adrenal glands (a hormone is a chemical which is made in one part of the body, but passes into the bloodstream and has effects on other parts of the body). You have two small adrenal glands which sit above each kidney. We all need cortisol to live, and small doses released into the body can have positive effects such as:
  • Helping the body to balance the effect of insulin to keep blood sugar at the right level and use sugar and fat for energy
  • Helping the body to control and respond to stress
  • Helping to regulate blood pressure
  • Helping to regulate the immune system
However, continuous high level of cortisol in your body has negative effects. The condition where your cortisol level in your body is too high over a long period of time is called Cushing’s syndrome.

Some of the cause of Cushing’s syndrome are:
  • Chronic stress – Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone”.
  • Adrenal problems – There are various rare disorders of the adrenal glands which can cause high levels of cortisol.
  • Steroid medicines – Some people take steroid medicines which are similar to cortisol.
  • Excess alcohol consumption.
  • Severe depression.
What are the symptoms of high cortisol levels (Cushing’s syndrome)?
Mood swings – such as being more irritable, depressed, or anxious than usual

It’s normal to feel moody or down now and again, but if you feel like you are constantly down in the dumps, and/or anxious, then you could be experiencing the consequences of cortisol’s long-term effects on serotonin and dopamine production.

Digestive problems
Rather annoyingly, high levels of cortisol, causes energy to be taken away from the gastrointestinal tract, lowers the production of enzymes needed to digest food, and reduces the absorption of minerals and nutrients.

Heart disease and High Blood Pressure
As we have learned, high levels of cortisol, can be caused by a highly stressful lifestyle. Too much stress can raise blood pressure, which can in turn make you at a higher risk of heart disease.

Sleep problems
Cortisol production is naturally high in the early morning to help you wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed. However, people who chronically stress their adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol alter their cortisol concentrations so that cortisol is low in the morning when they wake up instead of high.

Weight gain
Cortisol stimulates the appetite and cravings for sweet calorie dense foods and foods high in carbs. So if you have high levels of cortisol in your body over a long period of time, the chances are you are going to want to eat fatty and high calorie food.

Skin aging and wrinkling
As if high cortisol levels don’t do enough damage on the inside, well they dehydrate our skin too. Dehydrated skin means premature wrinkling.

Other symptoms are:
  • Aches and pains – particularly backache.
  • Increased susceptibility to infections – cortisol can weaken the efficacy of the immune system
  • Facial hair in women.
  • Purple/pink stretch marks (striae) may appear – similar to those seen on some pregnant women.
In most cases (apart from when steroid medication is the cause), the symptoms develop gradually. The diagnosis is often not clear for quite some time because most of the symptoms can also be caused by other common problems.

It is worth noting, that just because you may be experiencing one or even a few of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that you have high cortisol levels. The above symptoms may be associated with other medical conditions. It is always best to visit your doctor if you are concerned about how you are feeling.

If you feel as though you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then it may be time to take a look at your lifestyle and ways in which you change it in order to decrease your cortisol levels. Starting with my top tips!

How to lower your cortisol production

Cut out the caffeine
200 mg of caffeine is said to increase blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour. Try alternative, caffeine-free beverages for two weeks, and see how you feel.

Sleep deeper and longer
A good night’s sleep allows your body to relax and cortisol levels to decrease. 

Exercise regularly
A good workout is a natural stress buster. If I’m feeling frustrated or angry, then I know that going for a run is sure to clear my head. To put it in science speak, exercise also helps to build muscle mass and increase brain output of serotonin and dopamine, which are brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression.

Keep your blood sugar stable
As much as donuts and cookies are delicious, try to avoid eating too many of them, and devour them for treats instead. Too much refined sugar and simple carbohydrates spike your insulin production. Enjoy eating little and often and food that is balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets.

Drink up
Make sure you keep hydrated by gulping down lots of water. Drinking a glass when you first wake up and just before you go to bed will help to keep your cortisol levels down.

Take anti-stress supplements
B vitamins, minerals like calcium, magnesium chromium and zinc, and antioxidants like vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, grape seed extract, and CoQ 10. Link to the article on stress.

There are a number of plants and herbs that can be used to treat stress and anxiety such as St. John Wort, chamomile and oats.

Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes
When it comes to relaxing and lowering your cortisol levels go for calm, soft music or do mediation.

It’s easy to get caught up in a stressful lifestyle. We can’t always help our circumstances and what we have to face. However, you can take methods, like those above, to help you deal with stress, and thus keep your cortisol levels on the low. But for right now, you don’t have to do anything drastic. Just take a deep breath, light some scented candles and chill out. Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff.