General Practice 2022

High cortisol: what it can be, symptoms and how to lower it

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High cortisol: what it can be, symptoms and how to lower it
High cortisol: what it can be, symptoms and how to lower it

High cortisol is caused by the consumption of corticosteroids for a period longer than 15 days, or by increased production of this hormone in the adrenal glands, due to chronic stress or a tumor.

When this problem is suspected, due to the negative effects of excess cortisol, such as weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis, the general practitioner may order the cortisol test, by measurement in blood, urine or saliva.

The control of this hormone is done with physical activity and consumption of foods that control stress and blood sugar, such as yams, oats, eggs, flaxseed and milk and derivatives, for example. However, when high levels of cortisol are severe, treatment based on drugs or even surgery, guided by the endocrinologist, is necessary.

Main causes

Using corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone or dexamethasone, for more than 15 days is the most common form of excess cortisol in the blood, however other causes are:

  • Chronic stress and irregular sleep: can deregulate cortisol production and cause it to increase in the body;
  • Adrenal gland dysfunction: caused by the presence of a tumor or the dysregulation of its cells, which can produce excess cortisol;
  • Brain tumor: may stimulate adrenal glands to secrete cortisol.

Stress usually causes a slight change in cortisol values, while the most intense and severe increases are caused by direct changes in the adrenal glands and brain.

Possible symptoms and effects on the body

When produced in the adrenal glands, cortisol is released into the circulation for the purpose of regulating the body's functions. However, when in excess, and for a long period, it can cause bad consequences such as:

  • Increase in weight, abdominal circumference and swelling, due to fluid retention, and redistribution of body fat;
  • Diabetes and elevated blood sugar levels,by stimulating the action of the liver to produce glucose;
  • Osteoporosis, by decreasing the absorption of calcium by the body and reducing collagen;
  • Increased stress, irritability and depression, by causing the release of adrenaline and by direct action on the brain;
  • High cholesterol, by increasing the production of fats by the liver and release into the circulation;
  • Muscle reduction and weakness, because it decreases protein production and degrades proteins in tissues;
  • High blood pressure, by causing sodium and fluid retention, and by increasing the release of adrenaline into the circulation;
  • Reduction of the body's defenses, by inhibiting inflammation and immunity;
  • Increased levels of male hormones in the body, which in women can cause undesirable signs such as excess hair, deepening of the voice and hair loss;
  • Menstrual cycle changes and difficulty getting pregnant, by deregulating female hormones;
  • Skin fragility, increasing wounds, skin spots and stretch marks, by decreasing collagen and reducing the healing effect of the body.

The name of these changes caused by the chronic increase in cortisol is Cushing's syndrome. When this syndrome or an increase in cortisol is suspected, the general practitioner or endocrinologist may order blood, urine or saliva tests, which demonstrate an increase in this hormone in the body.

If these tests have a high value, the doctor will then investigate the cause of excess cortisol, through clinical evaluation, and through tomography or magnetic resonance, of the abdomen and brain, PET or scintigraphy.

Learn more about how cortisol is tested.

How to lower cortisol levels

As cortisol is closely linked to the emotional system, a good way to regulate cortisol is to reduce stress and anxiety, with psychotherapy and leisure time. In addition, doing physical activity and eating foods rich in protein and potassium, such as eggs, milk and dairy products, fish, oats, almonds, chestnuts, chia and flax seeds, can also help.

On the other hand, if the excess of cortisol is caused by the use of corticosteroids, it should be withdrawn gradually, over several days, with the guidance of the general practitioner or endocrinologist.

When the cause of the increase in cortisol is more serious, such as a tumor, treatment is done with the use of drugs to control the amount of the hormone, such as metyrapone, aminoglutethimide, for example, and surgery to remove this tumor, which will be decided and programmed between the patient, the endocrinologist and the surgeon.

Learn how to do a natural treatment that helps control high cortisol.

Because pregnancy increases cortisol

High cortisol levels are common in pregnancy, especially in the last weeks of pregnancy, as the placenta produces a hormone, known as CRH, which stimulates the synthesis of cortisol, increasing its levels in the pregnant woman's body.

However, and contrary to what happens outside of pregnancy, these high levels of cortisol during pregnancy do not seem to affect the he alth of the mother or the baby, as it is a necessary increase to maintain a he althy pregnancy and they even seem to help with fetal brain and lung development. For this reason, babies who are born prematurely are more likely to have breathing problems. Thus, when the pregnant woman is at high risk of having a premature birth, it is common for the obstetrician to recommend the administration of synthetic corticosteroids, to help the baby's organ development.

Complications of high cortisol, such as Cushing's syndrome, are very rare during pregnancy and even during the postpartum period, as cortisol levels tend to drop to normal values ​​after the baby is born.

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