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What Does High Cortisol Level Mean?

What is Cortisol and Why is it Significant?

Cortisol is a hormone which is released by the adrenal glands during times of extreme stress, fear, or panic. The adrenal glands are located on the top of the kidneys. How cortisol works is that whenever the body perceives some threat to it like when having to apply sudden breaks when driving and suddenly another car breaks the signal and heads directly at you then a chemical called adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH is released in the brain. This activates the adrenal glands to release two hormones namely cortisol and adrenaline.

What is Cortisol and Why is it Significant?

Cortisol is the primary hormone involved during periods of stress or extreme anxiety or panic attacks. This is actually a defense mechanism of the body to protect itself for any perceived threat. If there is an increase in the production of cortisol levels then it will result in a sudden burst of energy and strength.

During anxiety or panic attacks cortisol works by reducing the functions which may increase the anxiety. Citing an example during a panic attack an individual may have a rapid heart rate which is brought down by the cortisol to normal levels. A release of cortisol also suppresses the digestive system as well as the reproductive system.

Why is Cortisol Test Done?

Cortisol level is done to identify various medical conditions in which the adrenal glands are involved. For example, Addison and Cushing Diseases can be identified by checking the cortisol levels in the body as these conditions affect the amount of cortisol that the adrenal glands produce and release. This test gives an idea of how the adrenal and the pituitary glands are functioning. Cortisol also plays an important role in certain systems of the body like the immune system, nervous system, and circulatory systems of the body.

What Does High Cortisol Level Mean?

What Does High Cortisol Level Mean?

Coming to what high levels of cortisol mean, a high level of cortisol may indicate that the pituitary gland is releasing exorbitant amount of ACTH. This may be due to a tumor or a growth in the pituitary gland. It may also signify that the individual may be dealing with a tumor of the adrenal gland causing excess cortisol levels. Increased cortisol levels also indicate to a tumor anywhere else in the body too apart from the adrenal gland. These are some of the reasons behind Increased Cortisol levels.

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

Altered Sleep Patterns Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels: Under normal circumstances, the cortisol levels decrease during nighttime when you are preparing to go to bed but in case if you have a chronically high levels of cortisol then you will find it hard to fall asleep or if your sleep is broken in the night you might find it hard to get back to sleep even if you are tired and fatigued after a long day at work and get up tired the next day and be lethargic at work.

Weight Gain: If you have high levels of cortisol then you are bound to gain weight despite eating a healthy diet especially around the abdominal area and the waistline.

Prone to Frequent Infections: If you have increased levels of cortisol then you will have frequent colds and infections as cortisol depletes the self repair mechanism of the body and adversely affects the immune system of the body.

Craving for Junk Foods: People with high levels of cortisol crave for junk foods especially sweets as increased cortisol levels increases the blood sugar levels of the body.

Decreased Pain Threshold Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels: If you experience frequent headaches and have no history of this in the past then it may be caused due to high cortisol levels for a prolonged period of time as the adrenal starts to malfunction, which lowers the pain threshold of the body and you feel frequent backaches and headaches.

Decreased Libido: High cortisol levels does have its effect on libido. People with high cortisol levels have decreased sex drive.

Gastrointestinal Upset: If your cortisol level is high chronically then you will have frequent bouts of diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, and abdominal cramps.

Anxiety: Individuals with high cortisol levels are prone to psychological disorders like anxiety and depression as increased cortisol levels decrease serotonin in the brain which results in anxiety and panic attacks.

How is a Cortisol Level Found?

In order to measure cortisol level in the body, a blood sample is taken and analyzed. This is done by wrapping an elastic band usually in the upper arm in order to stop the flow of blood and makes the veins more prominent and easily seen. The site is then cleaned with alcohol swabs and a needle is inserted in the vein and the amount of blood required to analyze the cortisol levels is taken out. This blood is then collected and sent to pathology for analysis of the cortisol levels.


  1. WebMD – What Is Cortisol? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol
  2. Healthline – Cortisol: The Stress Hormone: https://www.healthline.com/health/cortisol-the-stress-hormone
  3. Mayo Clinic – Cortisol Test: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cortisol-test/about/pac-20384775
  4. Medical News Today – What to know about high cortisol levels: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322043
  5. Cleveland Clinic – Cortisol and Stress: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21199-cortisol-and-stress

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 2, 2023

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