High Cortisol Levels – Causes and Cures for Elevated Cortisol


Cortisol, or hydrocortisone, is a hormone that plays an active role in carbohydrate, protein and glucose metabolism. Cortisol has been called the “stress” hormone. During times of stress this hormone is released to help our bodies deal with the threats due to stress. Cortisol also has an anti-inflammatory effect in our bodies.

If all you ever heard about cortisol was the information mentioned in the previous paragraph you may conclude that high amounts of cortisol is a positive thing, and maybe even look for ways to increase your levels. However, that is not the case. The increase of cortisol levels during stressful times may stimulate your appetite which can lead to weight gain, and/or difficulty losing weight. There is a time and a place for an increase and a decrease in cortisol levels. Yes, cortisol is important, and we need it to survive, help our bodies run smoothly, and get over the little bumps in the road, but we need the right levels at the right time. Cortisol levels rise and fall multiple times during the day. Cortisol is at its highest level between 6-8 am in the morning and reaches its lowest point around midnight. People who have an imbalance may have a lower level of cortisol in the morning and a higher level in the evening.

To get a better understanding of how an excess of cortisol can occur, and the negative effects that follow in the presence of increased cortisol, I will delve a little deeper into the explanation of adrenaline and cortisol. We need these two stress hormones, but during times of stress they tend to reach elevated levels that cause a kink in our body’s homeostasis.

It is understood that the adrenal glands are responsible for the production of our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones are almost like a factory that significantly affects the function of every organ, gland, and tissue. They are responsible for producing the anti-aging hormone DHEA, as well as our reproduction hormones such as:

  • Estrogen
  • Progesterone
  • Testosterone
  • Aldosterone

adrenal-glandsThe hormone aldosterone controls sodium and potassium levels, also know as electrolytes, in the body. If there is an imbalance with either potassium or sodium levels the adrenals become stressed. To further explain; when potassium levels are too high, aldosterone is secreted, which causes the kidneys to excrete more potassium and retain sodium. Low sodium also stimulates the secretion of aldosterone. When a diet is chronically high in potassium or low in sodium the adrenals suffer some level of stress. Excess potassium has a natural diuretic quality and will cause a loss of sodium. Maintaining a balance between potassium and sodium should be a priority when trying to improve your health.

The above problem which is an imbalance of the two minerals during times of stress can continue for an extended period of time. Constantly being in a state of “fight or flight” will cause the adrenal gland to produce too much cortisol and adrenaline. The production of too much cortisol and adrenaline will wreak havoc on your system and start a chain of negative events that can be extremely challenging to overcome or fix. When this state of stress is experienced for an extended period of time our body taps into our reserves which become depleted, our immune system becomes weak, we suffer restless sleep, low blood sugar, kidney abnormalities, exhaustion and even hypothyroidism.

Continued stress, exposure to toxins, poor diet, and trauma can drain the adrenal gland. In addition, there are various medications that can cause your adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol, the stress hormone, and with the influence of other chemical influences create additional reactions that further compromise your health.

It is clear how various causes of adrenal stress can create fluctuations in circulating adrenaline and cortisol levels that can cause additional stress by interrupting our sleep patterns, sugar levels and immune system. These taxing fluctuations can keep us in a vicious cycle and prolong our ability to return our cortisol and adrenaline levels to a healthy baseline. This may become a life long battle on stress. Our inability to gain control over our daily stressors, maintain normal blood sugar, energy levels, enjoy a restful restorative night of sleep, and strengthen our immune system to fight off various setbacks due to a weakened immune system can leave us hopeless. Doubting our ability to overcome these issues and keeping us in an agonizing state will eventually become a burden that may be too much and our bodies will slowly break down.

This may seem pretty grim, but all hope is not lost. There are some steps you can take to help manage, and fight off stress once and for all. Below you will find a list of Do’s and Don’ts you can follow that will help you manage your cortisol levels.

The Do’s Include:

  • sleep-cortisol-bedYour meals should consist of complex carbohydrates (low on the glycemic index) combined with lean protein, good fats (nuts, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil) and fiber.
  • Your meals should consist of a protein serving no bigger than your fist, complex carbohydrate serving should fit in the palm of your hand, when selecting your vegetables go for dark bright colors, and it can be the largest portion in your meal.
  • Your water consumption should be at least half your body weight in ounces per day.
  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and set a goal to be in bed by 11 pm.
  • Sleep 7-8 hours when possible.
  • Try to eat natural, unprocessed, organic foods whenever possible.
  • Resolve to be kind and compassionate with yourself and others.
  • Add anti-stress supplements like magnesium, R-lipoic acid, zinc, coenzyme 10, B6, B9, B12, and a probiotic.
  • Try doing yoga, or meditate at least once a day.
  • Take some time out to do something for yourself. A drive to the beach, a massage, a hike, whatever will put you in a state of calmness and relaxation.
  • Make sure to laugh often!

The Don’ts Include:

  • Do not skip meals.
  • Avoid refined sugars, hydrogenated fats, refined carbohydrates, processed nutrient deficient junk food, chocolate, soda, and fast food.
  • Do not eat carbohydrates by themselves.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, soda, and juice.
  • Waking up really early if you don’t need to.
  • Staying up late for whatever reason, and/or catching your second wind.
  • Making your health the responsibility of someone other than yourself.
  • Overtraining.
  • Stress.
  • Being excessively serious.
  • Being over critical or hard on yourself.
  • Putting everyone before your needs and health.
  • Feeling guilty for putting yourself first, or taking time to pamper yourself.
  • At all cost, avoid people who steal your energy, happiness, and who are miserable and negative.

The second part to this article is called Lower Cortisol Levels and it offers more strategies, eating habits, and practical advice you can apply to your life.

Remember, we have one life. Make sure you spend it with people who cherish your friendship, and bring happiness into your life. Life may have its challenges but just make sure you surround yourself with people who raise you up, and are waiting at the finish line to cheer you on, and praise you for your efforts!

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About Author

Diane Mohlman

I'm a ISSA certified fitness trainer, specialist in performance nutrition, fitness therapy and youth fitness. I continue to educate myself on the topics of health and fitness. This industry is ever changing and new discoveries are made constantly. I have such a love for this field, and also helping people better their lives! See my profile page for more information.

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