How Chronically Increased Cortisol Levels Can Occur and Why They’re Dangerous

Cortisol is a hormone, which plays an important part in your body's response to stress. Learn the signs of chronically high cortisol, so you can take steps towards normalizing the levels of this crucial hormone.

Adrenal fatigue sufferers who spend any time studying their condition understand that cortisol is both a friend and a foe when dealing with stress. In normal circumstances, it is a vital part of the stress response, and plays a critical role in marshaling the adrenal glands’ resources to prepare for the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to potential danger. However, there are a variety of ways in which it can become elevated to an extreme level for prolonged periods of time. That’s when the trouble begins.

To better manage both stress and fatigue, it is important to learn all you can about this essential hormone. That means gaining new insight into how it can end up at chronically high levels, and the negative impact it can have on you if those levels are not somehow reduced. Without this knowledge, you may simply end up suffering through its ill effects without ever realizing what your own hormones are doing to your body.

How Cortisol Levels Can Rise To Dangerous Levels

As part of its normal role in the body, the hormone cortisol rises and falls over the course of a day in what is known as the cortisol circadian rhythm. In most people, this rhythm sees cortisol peaking around eight in the morning, and then gradually declining throughout the day until it reaches it low point about four hours after midnight. Then it starts to rise again, to prepare the body for the activities of the next day.

During stressful moments, cortisol is produced in greater quantities as part of the stress response. This is necessary so that the hormone can help to metabolize increased amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate to keep blood glucose in balance. That glucose ensures that blood sugar levels remain high enough to provide the energy the body’s cells need to respond to any perceived stress event. As part of this process, cortisol works to alter the blood pressure, heart contractions, and the central nervous system – all to maximize the body’s physical ability to survive whatever danger has been sensed.

In a moment of real danger, that response can be essential for saving your life. The problem is that your body reacts in exactly the same manner to non-physical stressors as well. If you are easily annoyed by traffic jams, your body reacts to that stressor with exactly the same type of response it would use if you were being chased by a pack of wolves. Granted, it might not be as powerful a stress response, but the physical effects are the same. When you encounter events, people, and circumstances like this over and over again throughout each day, your cortisol levels remain at elevated levels and never get a chance to return to normal. That’s dangerous.

Recognizing the Signs of Chronically High Cortisol

Part of being able to counter high cortisol levels involves recognizing the signs that it is happening. If you experience:

  • A disruption in your sleep patterns
  • Weight gain around your midsection
  • More frequent illnesses and infections
  • Fatigue even after a good night’s sleep
  • Cravings for sweets and other unhealthy snacks
  • Diminished libido
  • Poor digestion
  • Otherwise inexplicable aches and pains
  • Increased anxiety, mood swings, and depression…

… then your cortisol levels are probably higher than they should be!

The Dangers of High Cortisol Levels

As beneficial as cortisol might be for normal stress responses, consistent triggering of that response over time can pose significant risks to health as cortisol levels remain unnaturally high. Too much cortisol can affect your circadian rhythm, wear down your body over time, and even negatively impact your mental state.

Excessive Cortisol Disrupts Your Natural Sleep-Wake Rhythm

When cortisol lingers in the body at high levels, it soaks the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for regulation of the circadian rhythm. That can throw off the balance between cortisol and melatonin, the hormone that plays a role in sleep. This dysregulation of the natural sleep-wake cycle can cause you to suffer from disrupted sleeping patterns and increase your general level of fatigue. Over time, that lack of proper sleep and hormonal instability can be devastating.

Too Much Cortisol Can Damage Your Body

Cortisol also wears on your body when it is present in high levels for an extended period of time. It can have a number of ill effects over time, and damage many different areas of the body. For example, it can create a blood sugar imbalance that can lead to conditions like hypoglycemia, reduce your overall muscle mass, and cause wounds to heal slower than they normally would. The added stomach fat that can result from excessively high cortisol levels have been linked to serious medical ailments like strokes and heart attacks.

It can also suppress your immune system as cortisol tends to wage war against the white blood cells that are so critical to that aspect of health. As a result, you can suffer from increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, colds, and the flu. As the condition continues, you can even start to lose bone density and experience problems with your thyroid. This also happens to be one of the main sources for chronic fatigue.

Increased Cortisol Levels Can Impact Your Mental State

And lest you think that your body is the only victim, cortisol can also affect your mind. Many patients with high cortisol levels suffer from something known as “brain fog” and experience difficulty with cognitive skills. Many patients report feelings of confusion and uncertainty – as though they are walking around in a daze of sorts.

Clearly, extreme levels of cortisol in the body are a serious concern that should be dealt with as soon as the problem is discovered. By recognizing the problem as early as possible, and taking affirmative steps to resolve the issue, patients can recover from this hormonal imbalance and return to full health.

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