Causes of High Cortisol Levels


Cortisol, a hormone generated by the adrenal glands, packs a big punch. It helps to keep blood pressure in check, control insulin release and glucose metabolism, manage stress upon the body and it's a force-to-be reckoned with when it comes to our immuno-health. No small wonder then that the American Medical Association reports that high cortisol levels are responsible for more than 80 debilitating diseases, including Cushing's syndrome. Those with high cortisol levels often display excess pounds around the middle, an "apple shape." Memory may be impaired, fatigue is common and over the longer term, these high levels can damage one's immunity, make one's bones brittle and lead to heart disease and other dangerous conditions. Its causes are many, making proper identification of the source of this condition all the more important so one can then get the proper course of therapies and treatment.


You can't talk about high cortisol levels without talking about stress. Cortisol is actually produced as a way to help the body respond to both physical and emotional stress. In order to produce cortisol levels that are high enough to be of concern, the body must be under prolonged stress for some time. Of course, we know stress can take a toll on our health, but from a cortisol perspective, it can actually impair the body's ability to defend against infection and to utilize our fats and sugars for energy.


As its name suggests, this condition impairs functioning of the thyroid, whereby the thyroid gland makes the hormone, thyroxine, in excess of what it should. The result: It's like the body is working in over-time. The heart rate speeds up, those with it suffer from insomnia, rapid weight loss and weakness.

Pituitary Dysfunction

The pituitary gland works like the manager of the endocrine system, controlling how much of a hormone is secreted. Things can go wrong. For starters, a benign tumor, called an adenoma, may result and, in turn, stimulate the over-production of cortisol into the blood. If you have this type of tumor, odds are you're a woman, as women are five times more likely than men to develop this condition. On the other hand, tumors which are located outside of the pituitary gland, those which are ectopic in nature, are more likely to afflict men than women. Unlike an adenoma, these tumors may be cancerous.

Adrenal Malfunction

The adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys, are actually responsible for helping the body manage stress through the release of hormones, chiefly cortisol and epinephrine. There are two primary ways the adrenal gland can go haywire: Through an adrenal tumor or an adrenal cancer. The first option is the most common and prompts an increase of cortisol into the blood. Adrenal cancers cause more pronounced and rapid increases in hormone levels.


As the stress shoots up, the levels of cortisol shoot up. And the body undergoes major stresses during pregnancy. Researchers have found that in the final three months of pregnancy, cortisol levels increase dramatically.

Physical Activity

Physical fitness is good for us, but it can also cause some overlooked consequences. As athletes begin to step up their mileage and their work-outs, the production of cortisol is also stepped-up. It's believed that this is the body's response to coping with the stress that is placed on the body of an athlete that is highly trained. Conversely, mental and emotional exhaustion has also been known to stimulate the over-production of cortisol into the blood. It's for this reason that many with panic disorders and depression are also known to have high levels.


If you are diagnosed with high levels of cortisol, it's not always cause for concern. Some medications, including oral contraceptives, are well-documented to have impacts on cortisol levels. Hydrocortison, a synthetic form of cortisol, can also impact one's levels, as well as spironalactone, a drug whose many uses include treatment of male-pattern baldness and acne.

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