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What Causes High Cortisol Levels and Its Effects on Stress?

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Albeit, minerals, vitamins, hormones and enzymes are vital for the human body, too much of the intake, secretion or formulation can be a grave concern – for excess of everything is bad; exceptions are always there by the way. Likewise, cortisol is necessary for vital body functions, rather crucial for the human body, yet its excess can lead to a plethora of ailments and underlying pathologies. Cortisol is also referred to as a “stress chemical”. This is because it is released as a result of (or in response to) stressful conditions. These conditions can, however, be short-term or long-term. It is the secretion that enables the body to respond promptly to a dangerous or life-threatening situation. Cortisol is necessary for a variety of vital functions in the human body such as regulating metabolism and blood sugar. It also helps reduce inflammation and is also vital in memory formulation.  In a nutshell, on one side cortisol is important for health, yet its excess can cause swear health issues on the other hand.

An insight into the mechanism

Firstly, let us know a bit about cortisol. Cortisol is basically a steroid hormone that is primarily secreted by adrenal glands. Once one comes across a situation that poses harm (or potential harm) to the human body, the adrenal glands secrete this hormone (along with adrenaline). This abruptly increases the heart pumping rate together with the breath rate, alongside tensing body muscles. This all enables the body to take requisite measures to cater for the situation. It is to be noted that all this can happen within a second, or even in a fraction of a second. It limits other body functions that are not necessary to be performed at that very time – for example, digestion. Instead, the focus gets shifted towards the functions that are indispensable to be performed at that very instant to get out of that situation. For example, once walking, we suddenly come across a fast-moving car furiously rushing towards us, the body manages (or tends to manage at least) to jump out of the way by incorporating all of the energies – to the best of practical. This entire mechanism is rooted deep in the formulation and secretion of cortisol.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and Cushing Syndrome

While its secretion is dependent upon the adrenal glands, the adrenal glands are not, however, the only ones that control the secreted amount. As a matter-of-fact, hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands collectively control the amount of cortisol secreted. This overall governance is termed the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. As aforementioned, these amounts vary as per the situation and hence, we all have different amounts of it in the body across the day. Also, the amounts are higher in certain situations as explained earlier. However, if the higher concentrations persist for longer, that is bound to lead to potential health issues. Persistent high cortisol level is referred to as Cushing Syndrome. This consequently, may give rise to several health issues like

  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Retarred digestion
  • Sensitive skin
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Difficulties in focusing
  • Memory Issues
  • Renal disorders (and many more)

Causes of high cortisol levels

The hypothalamus in the brain coordinates with other glands to release cortisol. Firstly, it releases certain chemicals that trigger the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland in turn releases another hormone that finally makes the adrenal gland release cortisol accordingly. There are situations when the adrenal glands no longer secrete the amounts of cortisol in accordance with the aforementioned mechanism. That can be owing to many reasons: 

Persistent stress

Stressful conditions trigger the secretion as discussed earlier (and that is necessary for the body to get out of that situation). This secretion disables or retards the body functions that are not vital to be performed during that very situation. For example, digestion is not required to take place while jumping out of the way of a rushing car. Once the situation is over, the cortisol concentration falls back to normal and digestion resumes at the required pace. However, once the stress is long-term, there is a persistent higher concentration of cortisol in the body. Obviously, the body functions do not return to their original state, thereby giving rise to several other potential disorders.

Pituitary gland disorders

As discussed earlier, the pituitary gland secretes a certain hormone – the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) – that causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. Pituitary gland issues (like tumours, over or under-activity) disturb the ACTH amount which in turn triggers uneven cortisol secretion.

Adrenal gland issues

Obviously, the adrenal gland issues (like tumours) directly disturb the balance as the adrenal is the very gland that actually releases the cortisol.

Medication side effects

Certain Treatments like that for arthritis, asthma and some types of cancers involve medications that disturb the cortisol levels as a side-effect. Additionally, the inappropriate dosage of certain drugs can also cause the same.

Cortisol and stress

The cortisol and stress are directly hooked: one triggers another. These are as much interrelated that cortisol is commonly known as ‘the stress chemical’. As explained earlier, stressful conditions immediately trigger cortisol secretion. Also, the prolonged stressful conditions cause continued increased proportions of cortisol. Contrarily, increased proportions of cortisol over a longer period of time may directly or indirectly cause stress.

Direct effect of cortisol on stress

The secretions cause increased heartbeat and breath rate along with tensing the body muscles. In other words, that causes strained nerves, muscles and the cardiovascular system, in fact, most of the body parts. For a few minutes, that is going to be fine – as long as the condition is genuinely critical. However, the prolonged and larger concentrations cause discomfort that eventually gets translated into stress – both mental as well as physical.

Indirect effects of cortisol on stress

Well, the list is quite lengthy as far as the subject is concerned. The reason is that each and every physical disorder deteriorates the mind and/or body. Putting it simpler, there is a list of underlying issues associated with increased cortisol levels, that ultimately contribute to overall stress.

For instance, improper digestion leads to a lack of serotonin, while serotonin is responsible for relaxation, the absence of which gets translated into stress. Likewise, other hormones’ concentrations also fluctuate as a result, which subsequently adds more to it.

There is a list of medical issues that are a direct or indirect consequence of the increased proportion of cortisol such as:

  • Impaired cell formation
  • Retarded healing
  • Fatigued muscles
  • Weight Gain
  • Depression
  • Mood Swings
  • Weak Immunity 
  • Muscle (and Bone) Loss
  • Impaired mental functions


Excess of everything is bad, and likewise is too little of a good thing. To make it simple, while the over-abundance of cortisol is alarming, lesser than required secretions are also bound to raise imbalances. Therefore, appropriate measures need to be taken, so as to keep things in balance, or else the list of underlying mental and physical disorders may go longer and longer. Checkout help reduce cortisol to get enlightened more about it.

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