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High Cortisol: Symptoms and Management


July 30, 2019 | Published by

Cortisol is one of the hormones created in the adrenal glands. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a combination of glands often referred to as the HPA Stress Axis. (1) These glands work together to help your body manage stress.

This harmonious process that helps your body deal with stressors large and small can start to work against you when stress is frequent or chronic over extended periods of time. Chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which can cause a variety of symptoms throughout your body. Depending on what’s causing the increase in your cortisol levels, symptoms can vary. (2) Symptoms include:

  • excess weight gain in the stomach
  • weight gain and rounding of the face
  • thinning skin
  • muscle weakness
  • elevated blood pressure
  • easy bruising
  • flushed face
  • headache
  • slowed healing
  • severe fatigue
  • irritability
  • acne
  • difficulty concentrating

Prolonged high cortisol levels can also cause lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether. In addition, there has been a long-standing association between raised or impaired regulation of cortisol levels and a number of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. (3)

Tips to manage high cortisol

Watch what you eat

Much like individuals suffering from adrenal fatigue, your diet plays a critical role in helping to manage cortisol levels. Avoid or cut down on caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, as they can stimulate and exacerbate already high cortisol levels. Increase your intake of fiber by eating lots of fruits and vegetables and consume less animal proteins and white flour products.

Stay active

Exercise is generally known to improve overall health and help prevent against certain diseases, but it can also put you in a good mood and help you better manage stress. Exercising 30-40 minutes a day can help normalize cortisol, insulin and blood sugar, and reduces belly fat. (More tips to manage metabolic syndrome)

Get in the meditation zone

Even a few minutes of meditation a day can have a cumulative, positive effect on your stress levels. It doesn’t have to be a big deal or take a lot of time. You can try this easy one-minute meditation as a place to start.

Add supplements to your regimen

Having the right kind of supplemental support in addition to following the dietary, lifestyle and exercise guidelines described can significantly enhance your ability to handle stress and maintain metabolic balance. These supplements should support mood and adrenal function and replenish the nutrients used up by stress.

Every stress you experience, whether it’s a sleepless night or an overdue bill, triggers a chain reaction that prepares you to physically respond to the stressor. Without physical action in response to stress, these HPA Stress Axis-regulated adjustments can disrupt metabolic balance over time, as well as lower stress tolerance.

Not sure if your cortisol levels are high, low, or somewhere in-between? Speak with a healthcare practitioner about taking a cortisol saliva test to find out more.


  1. What is Cortisol? Hormone Health Network.
  2. Santos-Longhurst A. High Cortisol Symptoms: What Do They Mean? Healthline.
  3. Weber G. Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels and Your Anxiety. HealthyPlace Blog.

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  • Denise B Richards says:

    I am suffering from Adrenal Fatigue with symptoms of depression and anxiety from high cortisol levels.
    2 weeks ago I started taking supplements for my adrenals and bioidentical hormones because blood tests showed all hormone levels were low. However, the last few days, even though my stress is down, the anxiety and depression are worse. Is it possible to feel worse before I feel better??

    • Adrenal Fatigue Team says:

      Hi Denise,

      It is possible, though we cannot say for certain as we are not healthcare practitioners nor do we know what you are taking. Were the hormones prescribed by a healthcare practitioner? If so, we recommend speaking to them about the adverse reactions you are experiencing. We hope this helps – thanks for writing!

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