Health Issues with Chronically Elevated Cortisol

Health Issues with Chronically Elevated Cortisol

Has your doctor told you that you have chronically elevated levels of cortisol, or do you suspect that you might? If so, it is important to know that chronically high cortisol levels can have detrimental effects on your body and mind.

In this post, we are going to tell you about the health issues that are associated with chronic high cortisol. But first, let’s lay some basic groundwork by explaining exactly what cortisol is and why cortisol levels may sometimes become chronically elevated.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone. Your adrenal glands produce cortisol as part of your stress response.

Cortisol plays some other key roles in your body as well. It is involved with your cycles of sleeping and waking, it helps regulate your metabolism, blood pressure and blood sugar, and it exerts an anti-inflammatory effect.

Any type of stressful situation can result in an increase in cortisol production. When stress is acute, so is your stress response. Cortisol elevates temporarily, before dropping back down.

But chronic stress is a different story. As this article explains, “When stressful stimuli are repeated chronically, circulating cortisol is maintained at higher levels over a prolonged period. Chronically elevated cortisol levels now causes damages on hippocampal and cortical neurons (19), which are the main regions where the feedback inhibition starts. As a result, even when stress stimuli disappear, cortisol levels could be maintained at higher levels.”

Mayo Clinic says, “The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes.”

In short, an acute stress response is an adaptive response to a threat. But a chronic stress response becomes maladaptive and unhealthy. It can also become partially self-sustaining due to the neuron damage discussed above.

What Causes Chronically Elevated Cortisol?

Here are some possible reasons cortisol might become chronically elevated:

  • Problems with your pituitary gland such as tumors or an overactive gland.
  • Tumors in the adrenal glands.
  • Side effects from taking corticosteroid medications.
  • Chronic stress.

When cortisol levels are high enough for long enough, your doctor may diagnose you with Cushing’s syndrome. This is a rare diagnosis, however. Most people are not going to meet the diagnosis criteria for this syndrome even if they have a chronically activated stress response.

What are Some Health Issues Associated with Chronic High Cortisol?

Below are some health problems that are linked to chronically elevated cortisol. Note that we are not focusing on Cushing’s syndrome here. If you want to read about the symptoms of Cushing’s, we recommend clicking on the Cleveland Clinic link above.

1. Pain

Chronically elevated stress and cortisol levels can be a contributor to a range of pain conditions including muscle pain, headaches, and others.

This may sound counterintuitive, given that cortisol is anti-inflammatory. But the issue involves sensitization.

ASBMB Today explains, “Cortisol is a critical link between trauma and chronic pain. This is because cortisol and another stress hormone called adrenaline have been shown to sensitize peripheral nerves directly, which enables cortisol to signal pain in the absence of nerve injury.”

2. Problems with sleep

High cortisol tends to increase your alertness. In a normal day-night cycle, cortisol spikes in the morning to help you wake up, and is lower at night to help you go to sleep.

Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels at night and depleted cortisol levels in the morning. As a result, you might suffer from insomnia at night, and have a hard time waking up in the morning. Learn more about cortisol and your circadian rhythm.

3. Cognitive issues

Does it feel like it is harder to focus and remember things when you are chronically stressed? You are not imagining it. If you have chronically elevated cortisol, it can have an adverse effect on your brain health and cognitive function.

As explained here, “Higher levels of cortisol — a hormone released by the body in response to stress — were linked to impaired memory and even slight brain shrinkage in healthy adults in their late 40s, according to a study published Wednesday in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.”

4. Diabetes, weight gain and cardiovascular disease

Cleveland Clinic says, “Having chronically high cortisol levels can lead to persistent high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). This can cause Type 2 diabetes.” Cardiovascular disease risk can increase as a result.

Chronically high cortisol also makes you hungry. So, many people who experience it end up eating too much and putting on pounds.

5. Mental health issues

Mayo Clinic says that chronic high cortisol levels are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

This probably does not come as a surprise; if you are stressed out over a long period of time and possibly experiencing some of the other problems on this list, it would be no wonder that you might develop depression or anxiety.

What Can You Do About Chronic High Cortisol?

If you have read this far, you understand why it is important to try and regulate your stress response and avoid chronically elevated levels of cortisol.

Of course, the best case is one where you can remove the chronic stressors from your life. But that is not always possible. So, what else can you do to try and promote a healthy response to ongoing stress?

One idea is to try using natural supplements to support a healthy stress response. Cleveland Clinic says that herbs such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, lemon balm and chamomile may be useful.

The site also suggests that you get regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and spend time in nature. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and similar activities have helped a lot of people as well. Socializing and healthy relationships may also help during stressful times. How you frame your problems and work through them can have an impact too.

If you are concerned about high levels of cortisol, we suggest that you talk with your doctor, who will be able to provide you with personalized recommendations. In some cases, it might also be a good idea to chat with a therapist or counselor.


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