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Effects of high cortisol levels
The secretion of cortisol is stimulated by Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn is synthesized by the pituitary gland. Stress or anxiety is the most important factor that stimulates the release of cortisol. Release of this hormone can be termed as a response of the body to physical and mental stress. High cortisol levels are therefore often attributed to prolonged stress. An occasional increase in the level of cortisol may not result in any major problem. However, when the levels are elevated for a prolonged period, it can produce adverse effects on the immune functions, and fertility and eventually lead to the condition known as Cushing's syndrome.

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

High level of cortisol in the blood disrupts the normal functioning of the immune system, and hence, its ability to prevent infection and diseases. Here are some of the common symptoms that may be experienced by affected individuals. The symptoms may not be experienced immediately. Instead, they have been observed to appear slowly and gradually.
  • People with elevated cortisol levels may become more prone to infections and ulcers.
  • Excessive production of cortisol can also hinder the functioning of the thyroid gland and cause high blood pressure and hyperglycemia.
  • People with an elevated level of cortisol for a considerable amount of time have been observed to develop obesity with a peculiar body type. Fat deposition mainly takes place in the abdominal area and the trunk of such individuals, while their limbs look very skinny or slender. In addition to these, fat also accumulates around the neck and on the upper back.
  • An increase in abdominal fat in turn makes the person more vulnerable to conditions like heart attacks, strokes, and an increase in the level of LDL cholesterol.
Other Symptoms
  • Changes in the skin conditions leading to increased sensitivity, acne in the face, and appearance of purple-colored stretch marks on the body, especially in areas like the stomach, thighs and the breasts.
  • The condition can also take a toll on the cognitive ability of the affected individual.
  • People may suffer from emotional disorders like depression, paranoia and anxiety due to elevated levels of this hormone.
  • Muscle and bone weakness are some other important cortisol imbalance symptoms.
  • In women, this condition can manifest in irregularities in the menstrual cycle, and sometimes, the cycle can stop altogether.
  • Increase in the growth of facial and body hair and infertility.
  • The condition can also lower sex drive in men.
Low Cortisol Levels
  • Low levels of cortisol too can present many health-related issues, including chronic fatigue, exhaustion, and a condition known as Addison's disease.
  • Fatigue, weakness, muscle and joint pain, weight loss, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, depression, and irritability, are considered as some of the major low cortisol level symptoms.
Causes of High Cortisol Levels
  • Stress is the most important and common factor that causes elevated cortisol levels. However, an individual has to be under constant stress to produce high level of cortisol for a prolonged time period.
  • Elevated cortisol level can be caused by hyperthyroidism, adrenal tumor and cancer, pituitary dysfunction due to a tumor or adenoma, pregnancy and increased physical activities.
  • Even certain medications like anti-inflammatory steroid medications and some oral contraceptives can lead to a high level of cortisol in the body.
The level of cortisol is often determined with the help of a blood, urine and saliva test. The treatment mainly depends on stress management. Identifying and eliminating the factors that cause stress, following a nutritious diet which is low in sugar, and getting enough rest, are some of the important measures required for stress management.

However, if it is associated with some physical problems like tumors or cancer, then additional diagnostic tests and treatment options would be required to address the condition. Further treatment would therefore depend on identifying the actual disorders responsible for stimulating excessive production of cortisol hormone.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.