Signs You Have High Cortisol Levels (& How It Can Upend Your Life)

Ever feel like there aren't enough hours in the day? Or, perhaps you recognize the importance of sleep hygiene, yet you can't help but doomscroll through your phone. You're not alone. We should be at our most productive point in history — after all, we've never accessed information more conveniently. However, it can feel like a double-edged sword. It's easy to find the culture of hyper-productivity overwhelming, and burnout is something that many of us encounter from time to time.

You've probably heard of cortisol, often called the stress hormone. Despite the bad reputation, this naturally occurring hormone is essential to our well-being. "Cortisol is the most important hormone in the body because it touches literally every other system in the body," Dr. Elena A. Christofides, a board-certified endocrinologist, tells Shape. If cortisol levels dip too low, numerous health issues can arise, from decreased immunity to extreme fatigue.

Too much cortisol is an increasingly common problem that can lead to various ailments. Though it's difficult to determine how many people are affected by excess cortisol, we know that stress is a major catalyst. According to a 2022 survey from the American Psychological Association, nearly half of those polled under age 35 reported stress levels that hindered functionality most days. So how can you tell if you have high cortisol levels? Ahead, we'll break down some of the most common signs of excess cortisol and how to combat them.

Common symptoms of high cortisol

Cortisol comes from the adrenal glands, located right above your kidneys. Under normal circumstances, your body uses cortisol to regulate everyday functions, from sleep cycles to proper digestion. But when you're going through something stressful, be it an exam or a first date, your glands respond by releasing hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, to help you push through. This physiological response is useful for occasional bouts of stress, but things can go wrong when cortisol remains elevated over time.

Wondering how to tell if your cortisol levels are too high? Although everyone responds to excess stress a little differently, heightened cortisol can result in a number of unpleasant side effects. When your body produces too much cortisol, you might feel more irritable or anxious than usual. According to 2015 research published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, elevated cortisol can worsen the physical symptoms of conditions like IBS. Spikes in cortisol production can also lead to mood swings, restlessness, or brain fog, which can cause even more stress. Worse, high cortisol is also linked to insomnia and poor sleep, resulting in a vicious cycle that can provoke burnout or exhaustion.

How excess cortisol affects your body

While high cortisol can wreak havoc on your moods, triggering everything from anxiety to depression, it doesn't stop there. Excess cortisol is also associated with lowered immune function, increased bruising, and delayed wound healing. If you seem to catch every bug around, high cortisol could be the cause. As if that wasn't enough, it gets worse — too much cortisol may even dull your pearly whites. "Enamel on the teeth grows like an onion and you can tell from teeth's layers the years when the body was stressed," biological anthropologist Alan Goodman tells Discover Magazine. Stress can weaken tooth enamel by depleting your body of vital nutrients, like the protective minerals that keep your teeth and gums strong.

But before you start stressing about your dental health, there are a few other symptoms to consider. Irregular or missed periods can be another frustrating sign of heightened cortisol production. "When under stress, your body produces cortisol. Depending on how your body tolerates stress, the cortisol may lead to delayed or light periods — or no period at all (amenorrhea)," Dr. Swapna Kollikonda told Cleveland Clinic. In the days leading up to your period, your body produces more estrogen and cortisol. The relationship between cortisol and periods is not fully understood, but some research suggests that elevated cortisol can worsen PMS symptoms.

Reasons why your cortisol levels may be high

There are several causes of high cortisol, but the most common culprit is stress. And while it sounds simple enough, stress is an umbrella term used to represent negative emotional states, from anxiety to irritability. Over time, they can manifest as physical symptoms, like frequent colds or delayed healing, due to high cortisol. "If there's cortisol being released chronically for days and weeks at a time, that very likely could impair your immune system," Dr. David Cutler tells Insider. A common side effect of high cortisol is insomnia or difficulty sleeping — but poor sleep can also contribute to higher-than-average cortisol levels.

Another reason why your cortisol levels are high? Commonly used drugs, like alcohol, can contribute to excess cortisol production. "Alcohol consumption causes increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain," said Krissy Maurin, a Providence St. Joseph Hospital wellness coordinator, told Health. Regarding prescriptions, everything from steroids to ADHD medications may lead to higher cortisol values in some individuals. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that subjects who took 60 mg of atomoxetine, an ADHD drug known as Strattera, had elevated cortisol levels within hours. Furthermore, additional 2009 research in the journal Hormones and Behavior showed that adults with ADHD naturally have higher cortisol levels, possibly due to poor stress management.

Cortisol's effect on your appetite

If you find it hard to resist the allure of junk food or sweets, cortisol could have something to do with it. The reason? High cortisol affects your dopamine levels, causing you to crave foods that instantly release feel-good chemicals. Because excess cortisol is linked to persistent sleep issues like insomnia, it's common to experience nighttime cravings or overeating. Of course, many factors can influence stress eating — but experts suggest that cortisol could be to blame for your midnight snacking sessions. "Cortisol causes cravings for sweet food ... and when you eat something sweet, you immediately feel better. It's a quick fix, but one that comes with long-term negative consequences," Psychologist Dina Hirsch, Ph.D., tells Westchester Health.

When cortisol levels spike over a prolonged period, you can develop excess fat around the lower stomach, also known as stress belly. This weight gain can also feature prominent, purplish stretch marks along the torso or upper thighs. Moreover, chronically high cortisol can cause facial swelling or puffiness, often called moon face. These characteristics are just a few potential warning signs of Cushing syndrome, an endocrine disorder caused by elevated cortisol. Still, just because you may have traits like these doesn't mean you have Cushing's. "Making a diagnosis of Cushing's is tricky because some of the symptoms — weight gain, mood changes, insomnia — are very common," Dr. Eliza Geer, a neuroendocrinologist, tells Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Too much cortisol can trigger hair loss

Noticing clumps of hair gathering in the shower drain lately? Surprise — an imbalance of the stress hormone can alter the appearance of your hair, too. When your cortisol production goes into overdrive, you might see pronounced shedding or thinning strands. And while stress is one of the leading causes of hair loss, the problem can be exacerbated by other conditions, from COVID-19 to PCOS. "Hair loss can be caused by an imbalance of many different kinds of hormone issues, and [high] cortisol ... is one of the hormones often identified with hair loss," certified trichologist Gretchen Friese tells Aedit. According to Friese, cortisol affects the hair growth cycle, and its detrimental effects can vary from person to person. For some, excess cortisol can also trigger scalp troubles, such as oiliness or dandruff.

Whether you experience subtle signs of shedding or hair loss that's more substantial, seeing a sudden drop in hair density can be unsettling for anyone. "One thing I tell patients who come in for hair loss is that they might benefit from seeing a therapist, because we know that stress causes hair loss and hair loss also adds to stress. Hair is a huge component of our identity," Dr. Luis Garza, professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells The New York Times. That said, you don't necessarily need therapy to combat cortisol-induced hair loss, but stress reduction is critical to getting your tresses back on track.

Ways to lower your cortisol naturally

Although you may display symptoms of high cortisol, only a doctor can assess whether your values are within a healthy range. However, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make that can lower your stress levels. For some, it's as simple as finding the proper sleep schedule. "High cortisol levels can promote insomnia, but poor sleep can also promote insomnia. It's a cyclical relationship, so do your part to get at least eight hours of sleep a night," Dr. Trent Orfanos tells Parade. If you find it difficult to fall asleep at night, you might want to incorporate more movement during the day. According to a 2021 study presented in the scientific journal Frontiers In Psychiatry, both vigorous and low-impact forms of exercise may significantly improve the quality of one's sleep. 

In addition to restful sleep, a healthy diet can help stabilize cortisol production. While grabbing a processed snack for a quick mood boost is tempting, whole foods contain essential compounds that can help you fight off stress. Cortisol-lowering foods "may include complex carbohydrates from veggies, fruit, beans, and whole grains; healthy fats from olives, olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds; and good quality protein," registered dietitian Michelle Babb tells Well + Good. To get more nutrients in your diet, consider including probiotics or fermented foods, like kimchi or cultured yogurt. Although research is still developing, some probiotic strains could increase your absorption of vitamins and minerals, per 2021 findings published in Nutrients.

Balancing cortisol levels could improve your skin

One of the biggest benefits of lowering your cortisol levels? Your complexion will thank you. The relationship between cortisol and troubled skin is a well-documented phenomenon that isn't limited to breakouts. "Fluctuating levels of cortisol in the body makes the skin more sensitive and reactive. High cortisol levels cause the skin's sebaceous glands to produce more sebum." Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi tells Vogue India. "Cortisol also has the power to accelerate the ageing process of the skin, rapidly enhancing common unwanted ageing signs like lines and wrinkles..." Fortunately, many habits that lower cortisol production also support healthy skin, from getting proper rest to eating a balanced diet.

Furthermore, balancing cortisol can also improve your skin's hydration levels and overall function. In a 2018 study published in the scientific journal Nature, researchers found that excess cortisol was linked to the weakening of the stratum corneum, also known as the skin barrier. If your skin barrier is compromised due to high cortisol, you might notice sensitivity to sunlight, irritation, or dull skin — all of which can be addressed through stress reduction. "With proper care, the skin barrier can be restored and back on track in two to four weeks, and even quicker for some," Dr. Aanand Geria tells Women's Health. In the meantime, however, it's best to avoid using active skincare ingredients, as they can cause further damage to the delicate skin barrier.

Other health benefits of lower cortisol levels

Reducing your cortisol levels can yield positive effects that extend well beyond your physical appearance. According to 2018 findings published in the medical journal Neurology, people with elevated cortisol performed poorly on memory tests versus those with lower cortisol values. While more research is needed to understand cortisol's association with memory recall, the results are promising for those focused on implementing stress reduction. "An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive—not just to achieving our aims but perhaps to our capacity to be productive," the study's lead researcher, Sudha Seshadri, told Scientific American.

Whether trying to improve your complexion or overall health, lowering your cortisol levels can help you achieve your goals. There are many ways to manage cortisol naturally, from exploring mindfulness to trying stress-relieving herbs like ashwagandha, but it can take some trial and error to find out which works best for you. Instead of holding yourself to unrealistic standards or expecting change overnight, try taking things one step at a time when introducing new stress reduction strategies.

If you continue to experience high stress despite your best efforts, speak to your doctor or therapist, who can provide further guidance and tips. Above all, remember to be kind to yourself — limiting your response to stress is a practice that takes time.