How Chronic Elevated Cortisol Levels Affect the Endocrine System

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of vital processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.  To get a little scientific; cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to signals from the pituitary gland and hypothalamus of the brain. The secretion of cortisol increases in response to psychological or physical stress of any kind. Following a stressful event, adrenaline levels return to normal while cortisol levels can remain elevated over a much longer period of time. 

Normal levels of cortisol are released every morning upon waking up.  As you move through your day however, the cortisol levels could increase, stay normal, or decrease depending on how you view the world you live in.  Many of us are living a lifestyle that is fast paced, high demand, and high pressure.  We also create additional pressure on ourselves based on how we view our lives, in turn we can create more stress on ourselves.




If you’re like me, I often hit the snooze button several times in the morning, therefore by the time I am out of bed, my cortisol level is increased because I’ve spent the extra time in bed, (not gaining extra sleep) and now I am behind the 8-ball.  I am rushing around, and running late for everything in my day, my body has perceived the stress and my adrenal glands are releasing cortisol into my bloodstream.  Sounds fun right?  It’s not. This typically sets my day up for additional challenges and the snowball affect can be terrible.

I find that when I wake up and get out of bed as soon as my alarm goes off, that I am calmer, and I clearly have normal levels of cortisol. These levels help regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, strengthen the heart muscle, and other important balancing needs for the body.  This is the ideal state, we need normal amounts of cortisol to manage our bodies properly.   

Increased cortisol levels may be affecting your weight, therefore increasing the risk of serious health conditions.

Which one sounds better?  Sign me up for the nicely regulated cortisol levels, why?

When we are constantly in high-stress mode, and our bodies are experiencing stress, we run the risk of feeling depressed, anxious, fatigued, irritable, we increase the chances of having gastrointestinal problems, as well as increased blood pressure, just to name a few.  While some of these symptoms may be temporary, it’s been studied that if we cannot get out of the “high stress mode”, the cortisol will continue to produce, and happily hang out in our bloodstream.  This could cause chronic elevated cortisol levels.

Chronic elevated cortisol disrupts endocrine system balance in the following ways.

Adrenals:  Adrenal function is a major priority of the body. It is our “fight or flight” survival response. As previously mentioned, when the body is in a state of chronic stress, and the adrenals are working overtime, the adrenals begin to “steal” nutrients and hormonal precursors from other parts of the endocrine system. This leads to low DHEA and low progesterone, abnormal estrogen progesterone ratios, which feedback to pituitary imbalances. Adrenal fatigue can lead to low energy, fatigue, trouble sleeping, anxiety and depression, poor memory and concentration, to name a few.

Liver:  The liver is responsible for deactivating hormones that are in excess or no longer function. These hormones need to be broken down, conjugated and removed from the body. Elevated cortisol levels decrease the liver’s ability to detoxify by decreasing the effectiveness of the liver pathways that preform the conjugation.

Pancreas:  When cortisol levels are constantly elevated, insulin receptors on cells do not respond properly to insulin. This puts a strain on the pancreas to secrete more insulin in order to transport glucose into the cells. In turn, this leads to high insulin levels and all the adverse impacts that come along with it.  Insulin resistance and effect the body’s ability to control blood sugar.  When cortisol is high, our body does not effectively read the message from insulin to lower blood sugar.  High blood sugar can lead to several serious health conditions, including diabetes and obesity.

Some natural tips to help lower your cortisol levels caused by stress

  • Lower stress – Remove yourself from stressful situations when possible.  Learn how to cope with stress.
  • Eat a good diet – eat a healthy balanced diet and drink plenty of water.
  • Sleeping well – The amount of sleep you get can directly affect cortisol levels. A bad night’s sleep or prolonged sleep deprivation will affect cortisol levels.
  • Relaxation Techniques – Mediation, mindfulness and simple breathing exercises will benefit you in many ways, learn to unwind. I recommend journaling thoughts or creative writing.
  • Exercise – Being physically active typically improves anyone’s mood. You don’t need to run a marathon, simply walk for 30 minutes every day.
  • Having a sense of humor can also help reduce stress, yes, good old fashion fun!
  • Having good relationships also helps to reduce stress in your life.
  • Fish oil along with a healthy diet has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and could be beneficial.

Bottom Line

Having too much cortisol in the blood can be damaging to health, particularly if cortisol levels remain high over an extended period.

Trying to lower stress levels is the best way to lower cortisol. By making simple lifestyle changes to live a healthier, more active life, people can reduce the amount of stress they experience, and keep their cortisol levels normal. 

References Kathleen Hall, MD, Prevention Medicine, ShareCare and Betheny Cadman, July 2, 2018, Medical News Today.

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