stressed out woman

Too much of this stress hormone can wreak havoc on your health.

Cortisol is commonly referred to as the stress hormone. That's because it's one of several hormones that your body produces in response to stress. While it plays a part in the body's reaction to stress, this hormone also affects other bodily functions. Your body naturally produces the hormone when needed, but if you produce too much cortisol, it may negatively affect your physical and mental health.

What role does cortisol play in your body?

Cortisol is a hormone that is naturally produced by the adrenal glands. It plays a part in your body's fight-or-flight response to stress by increasing the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, enhancing the brain's use of this energy source and slowing functions that would be non-essential if your body had to go into fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol also affects your metabolism and blood pressure, as well as your body's immune and inflammatory response.

Cortisol is naturally secreted throughout the day, with levels varying in line with your circadian rhythm. Levels of cortisol are typically highest in the morning, helping you start your day strong. Secretion of the hormone gradually decreases as the day goes on, with levels reaching their lowest point at night when it's time to sleep. This helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Production of cortisol is also affected by stress and other factors that may stress the body.

What happens if your cortisol levels are always high?

If you consistently have high levels of cortisol in your body, it may negatively affect your physical and mental health. Common symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • Weight gain
  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Problems with memory, concentration and decision-making
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle weakness
  • Irregular periods
  • Low sex drive

High levels of cortisol may also increase your risk of serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Additionally, too much cortisol may weaken your immune system, leaving your more prone to illness.

What causes cortisol levels to be high?

Several factors may affect how much cortisol your body produces. One of the primary reasons for producing too much cortisol is chronic stress. Some health conditions may also increase cortisol levels, including autoimmune disorders, chronic infections and Cushing syndrome, which is caused by a tumor located in the pituitary or adrenal glands where cortisol is produced. Some medications can raise cortisol levels. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality may also cause cortisol levels to be higher than normal. Exercise, alcohol and caffeine may also increase levels, although this effect is temporary and levels return to normal relatively quickly.

What can you do to lower cortisol levels?

Since high cortisol levels often occur due to chronic stress, finding ways to reduce stress is one of the best ways to keep cortisol levels in a healthy range. Everyone has different ways of reacting to and managing stress, so it's best to find what works best for you. Avoiding stressful situations, when possible is a good start. Finding ways to manage stress, such as practicing mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, yoga and exercise may also help.


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Date Last Reviewed: February 20, 2024

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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