8 Warning Signs of High Cortisol Levels (And What To Do About It)
As the new year begins, you may feel stressed about resolutions, what your future holds, and the post-holiday return to daily life. All that stress can really add up, and if it continues too long unabated, some serious consequences set in — the result of high cortisol levels.
Today, we’ll look at eight warning signs of excessively high cortisol levels, that can damage your bones and harm your overall health. Then you’ll learn about a natural, evidence-backed way to control cortisol levels.
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
When you experience stress your adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol that sets your system into high alert. This heightened state is intended to help you overcome the source of the stress, so your body can get back to business as usual. That’s a good thing.
But if you remain in a state of stress for an extended period, your body remains flooded with cortisol, even though it’s not serving its purpose. This leads to serious bone damage.
Cortisol is acidifying, throwing off the pH balance of your body. To rectify this imbalance, alkalizing minerals are removed from your bones, decreasing their density. Cortisol also interferes with calcium absorption, preventing the replacement of that crucial mineral.1
The energy that your body uses to produce cortisol is energy that would otherwise be utilized for processes such as bone formation – to mention one. Additionally, extended exposure to elevated cortisol levels weakens your immune system by hampering the communication between the cells of your endocrine, nervous, and immune systems.
These are clearly not desirable outcomes, so it is crucial that you keep your cortisol levels in check. Today we’re going to focus on eight warning signs of excessively elevated cortisol levels.
An extreme amount of cortisol for an extended period of time can result in Cushing Syndrome, which is sometimes called hypercortisolism. It is often related to the administration of oral corticosteroid medication, but can also arise due to endogenous overproduction of cortisol.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of this particularly severe condition:
- Weight gain and fatty tissue deposits, particularly around the midsection and upper back, in the face, and between the shoulder blades.
- Pink or purple stretch marks (striae) on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, breasts, and arms
- Slow healing of cuts, insect bites and infections
- Thinning, fragile skin that bruises easily
- Thicker or more visible body and facial hair in women
- Severe fatigue
- Loss of emotional control
- Cognitive difficulties
- Muscle weakness
- Depression, anxiety, and irritability
- High blood pressure
- Bone loss, leading to fractures over time
Many of these symptoms will be echoed in the warning signs we’ll review below. While they might not constitute full-blown Cushing Syndrome, they are a lesser version of the health problems caused by cortisol overload.
Keep an eye out for these eight symptoms and signals. It might be your body telling you it needs some help calming down and getting back in balance.
1. Digestive Problems
The digestive system is particularly sensitive to the effects of stress. This is in part due to another hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF (and its effects) are a particularly good warning sign for cortisol because CRF production leads directly to cortisol release.
When you feel stressed, the hypothalamus releases CRF. CRF stimulates the pituitary gland, which then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), causing the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol.
The effect of stress-induced CRF in humans involves the slowing down of the function of the upper gastrointestinal system (a reduction in transit through the stomach and small intestine) and an increase in activity in the lower digestive system (increased colonic contractions). These symptoms may result in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia.
Studies have established the link between these forms of digestive dysfunction and stress, so if you’re experiencing gastrointestinal problems, you may have high cortisol levels.2
2. Mood Swings
If you’re experiencing an unusual amount or severity of mood swings, that could mean your cortisol levels are too high. One study, conducting by Israeli scientists, found that high cortisol levels significantly increased serotonin uptake in the brains of people who did not already suffer from depression or general anxiety. This means that shifts in mood (triggered by the release of serotonin) would be particularly pronounced in the presence of high levels of cortisol.3
Studies have also shown that dopamine is released in response to stress, as a coping mechanism. Similar to the increased impact of serotonin, a dramatic increase in dopamine may feel like a drastic shift in mood.4
3. Inability To Build Muscle
If you’ve experienced muscle weakness, and a seeming inability to gain strength, cortisol could be the culprit. Studies have shown that cortisol decreases the uptake of amino acids by muscle, inhibiting protein synthesis.5 The end result? There is no construction of new muscle.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, cortisol also breaks down muscle, as well as the important connective tissue collagen. Collagen is also an integral component of bone and cartilage. As Savers know, building new muscle is essential, since the stress that muscles place on bone directly stimulates bone formation, per Wolff’s Law.
4. Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
Hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease are both conditions that can be brought on– or exacerbated– by cortisol. The hormone causes your body to retain sodium (while excreting potassium) and contracting your blood vessels. These actions all contribute to an increase in blood pressure which may lead to heart disease.6
So if your blood pressure is too high, the culprit may in part be excessively elevated cortisol levels.
5. Weight Gain
Gaining weight suddenly can be a sign that your body is overwhelmed with cortisol. This is in part because cortisol causes increased appetite and cravings for sugar, as studies on animals and humans alike have confirmed.7,8
By decreasing insulin secretion while increasing insulin resistance, cortisol raises circulating insulin levels. This robs cells of their energy, resulting in a call for more calories, which can lead to weight gain.5 There’s more science behind “stress eating” than you may have thought, and the results are bad news for your bones and your health.
6. Reduced Immune Function
Do you seem to catch every cold that comes your way? A weakened immune system could be a sign that you’re cortisol levels are too high.
The causes of this response are many, from the inhibition of histamine secretion and the natural killer cells that limit microbial infection, to the inhibition of cytokines that are critical to the stimulation of the immune system.9 If your system is already stressed, the last thing you need is a bacterial or viral infection making you sick.
7. Trouble Sleeping
In addition to serving our fight or flight survival stress-response, cortisol helps us to move through our sleep-wake cycles. When we rise in the morning, our cortisol levels should be at their highest point of the day, helping us to wake up and get going, before gradually dropping off to their lowest points at night and while we sleep.
Having trouble sleeping could be a sign that your body isn’t experiencing this normal ebb and flow of the hormone. Insomnia, for example, is not technically a loss of sleep, but the result of a state of continuous hyperarousal, and stress is a major cause.10
8. Reduced Bone Density
If you’re experiencing a loss of bone density, high cortisol levels could be a part of the problem. Studies have shown a clear association between high cortisol levels and low bone density. One study concluded the following:
“We propose that the primary effect of cortisol on bone growth is an inhibition of proliferation of the periosteal cells which give rise to osteoblasts. The subsequent decrease in the incorporation of proline into the central bone may be the consequence of this inhibition.”11
Cortisol alters the very means by which our bodies produce bone. Osteoblasts are the cells that create new bone, and if their production is suppressed, then the removal of damaged bone will continue, but it won’t all get replaced with the strong and flexible new bone our bodies need.
If you think your cortisol levels may be running wild and affecting all of these interconnected body systems, there are actions you can take to help bring them back under control.
Ashwagandha: An Incredible, Natural Cortisol Regulator
Ashwagandha is an herb that has been used in the traditional Indian Ayurvedic medical practice for thousands of years. Also known as Indian Ginseng or Winter Cherry, the name ashwagandha literally translates to “smell of horse,” due to the plant’s distinctive aroma.
This medicinal herb is classified in Western medicine as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are compounds that help an organism adapt to stress, normalizing the physiological imbalances that stress triggers in the body. Ashwagandha is a particularly effective and safe adaptogen that reduces stress-induced damage and doesn’t have negative side-effects nor withdrawal symptoms.
Scientists at the Department of Neuropsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry at Asha Hospital in India conducted a study, the title of which effectively communicates the subject and high-quality methodology of the research: “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.”12
The study followed 64 participants who were experiencing mental stress, but who were otherwise in normal health. Each participant was thoroughly assessed, including serum cortisol levels and standardized stress questionnaires. They were divided into two groups; both were given sets of unmarked capsules and instructed to take one capsule twice a day. One group received placebos and the other received capsules containing 300 mg of high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract.
After 60 days, the same assessments were performed. Here are the results, as published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine:
“The treatment group that was given the high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract exhibited a significant reduction (P less than 0.0001) in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, relative to the placebo group. The serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced P=0.0006 in the Ashwagandha group, relative to the placebo group… High-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract can be used safely as an adaptogen in adults who are under stress.”12
These are remarkably clear and definitive results that only build on both a long history of Ashwagandha use, and other scientific research confirming the stress-reducing, cortisol-lowering benefits of Ashwagandha extracts.
Lower Your Cortisol Levels With Ashwagandha
If you suspect your cortisol levels are excessively elevated, you can ask your health practitioner to order a test for it. Or you can take Ashwagandha along with the Foundation Supplements to provide your bones with the nutrients they need while creating the optimal physiological conditions to support the bone remodeling process.
NatureCity’s TrueOsteo™ Advanced Bone Support supplement is an excellent and trusted source for the highest quality Ashwagandha extract, as well as an organic plant-based calcium and mineral complex, Vitamin K2, and Vitamin D3. It also contains bone-essential magnesium, silica, and boron, all presented in their most bioavailable and effective forms.
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Keep an eye on your stress levels, and remember that you have the power to improve your health, control your actions, and make the choice to build stronger, more resilient bones.
Till next time,
1 Adinoff, Allen D., M.D. and Hollister, Roger J., M.D. “Steroid-Induced Fractures and Bone Loss in Patients with Asthma.” New England Journal of Medicine. August 4, 1983. 309:265-268. Web. http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM198308043090502
2 Dr. Howard Mertz. “Stress and the Gut.” Course Materials: Vanderbilt University. Web: https://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/files/educational-gi-handouts/Stress%20and%20the%20Gut.pdf
3 Tafet GE, Idoyaga-Vargas VP, Abulafia DP, Calandria JM, Roffman SS, Chiovetta A, Shinitzky M. “Correlation between cortisol level and serotonin uptake in patients with chronic stress and depression.” Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2001 Dec;1(4):388-93. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12467090
4 Jessica Brock. “The Influence of Stress on Dopamine Levels.” Biology 202, Serendip. 1999. Web: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/serendipupdate/influence-stress-dopamine-levels
5 David P Macfarlane, Shareen Forbes and Brian R Walker. “Glucocorticoids and fatty acid metabolism in humans: fuelling fat redistribution in the metabolic syndrome” J Endocrinol May 1, 2008 197 189-204. Web: http://joe.endocrinology-journals.org/content/197/2/189.full#abstract-1
6 Yang S1, Zhang L. “Glucocorticoids and vascular reactivity.” Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 2004 Jan;2(1):1-12. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15320828
7 Epel, E., R. Lapidus, B. McEwen, et al. “Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating” behavior.Psychoneuroendocrinology 26: 37-49, 2001.
8 Christine A. Maglione-Garves, Len Kravitz, Ph.D., and Suzanne Schneider, Ph.D. “Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight” Web: http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html
9 Michael Randall. “The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.” DUJS Online. Web: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/#.WlsHAbT81Bx
10 Maria Basta, M.D., George P Chrousos, M.D, Antonio Vela-Bueno, M.D, and Alexandros N Vgontzas, M.D. “CHRONIC INSOMNIA AND STRESS SYSTEM.” Sleep Med Clin. 2007 Jun; 2(2): 279–291. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2128619/
11 Dennison E, Hindmarsh P, Fall C, Kellingray S, Barker D, Phillips D, Cooper C. “Profiles of endogenous circulating cortisol and bone mineral density in healthy elderly men.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1999 Sep;84(9):3058-63. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10487665
12 K. Chandrasekhar, Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.” Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 34(3): 255–262. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc