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What are the Effects of Elevated Cortisol Levels?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Elevated cortisol levels can affect health in numerous ways. Some of the more common effects are weight gain, particularly in the stomach or abdomen, fatigue, and infertility. Memory loss and some deficiencies in the immune system have also been noted, as well as a link to Type 2 diabetes. Often these effects are so subtle that it may take years to have the condition properly diagnosed.

Cortisol is a hormone that serves several important purposes. It is necessary for maintaining normal blood pressure and helps the heart pump blood to the arteries and vessels. In addition, it can help control weight gain by properly allocating proteins and carbohydrates. Cortisol also controls the way our bodies respond to inflammation.

Researchers have found a definitive link between elevated cortisol levels and stress. In normal stress-related incidents, cortisol levels will spike, but come back down to normal in a short period of time. If this stress level continues, however, the cortisol level may remain elevated. Women, and especially working women with children, seem to suffer this condition much more often than men. This is believed to be due to the hectic nature of their lifestyles.

People suffering from elevated cortisol levels may not realize they have a problem for quite some time. It may take months or even years before the effects become noticeable enough to seek out the help of a physician. If left undiagnosed, these elevated levels often create a general decline in health, as well as some of the more serious effects such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and memory loss.

Treatment for elevated cortisol levels may include stress management therapy or prescription drugs that help inhibit the production of the hormone. In extreme cases, drugs with tranquilizing properties such as Valium® may be prescribed. Before determining treatment, the physician usually conducts a number of tests to try to pinpoint the cause of the elevated cortisol. In rare instances, it may result from a more serious underlying condition.

A condition called Cushing’s Syndrome can sometimes develop due to prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels. In women, this condition often causes hair growth on the face, neck, and thighs, as well as irregular menstrual cycle and weakened bones. In addition to weak and brittle bones, men often have a decline in sex drive and sperm count. It is generally accepted that people who suffer from high cortisol levels should be routinely checked for Cushing’s Syndrome, especially if any of the other symptoms are present.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Mar 30, 2013

Can higher than normal cortisol levels cause thyroid problems, specifically hypothyroid?

By turquoise — On Mar 30, 2013

@donasmrs-- I'm sorry to hear about your diagnosis but it's good that you are well informed about what is happening in your body and you can get the proper treatment.

I have elevated cortisol as well and the issues I'm dealing with are depression and fatigue. I'm also having a difficult time maintaining low stress levels. I thought that stress just meant mental stress, but apparently physical stress-- being very active and working out very frequently-- can also increase cortisol levels.

Right now I'm trying to be active enough to stay fit while causing as little stress to my body and mind as possible. I've started doing pilates and yoga and both have been very helpful.

By donasmrs — On Mar 29, 2013

I've recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, as well as elevated cortisol levels. My doctor said that my diabetes is probably a cortisol side effect and if my cortisol goes back to normal, my insulin resistance might go back to normal too.

I have read that weight gain around the stomach increases insulin resistance and leads to diabetes so now it makes sense to me that cortisol can trigger all this. This is the major symptom I have from elevated cortisol. I don't know if I should be happy or sad that the two conditions are related. I'm just trying to relax and not stress myself out as much.

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