Signs That Your Cortisol Levels May Be Too High

by Allison Bush Editor

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress-it's our primary stress hormone and is responsible for activating the body's "fight or flight" response in stressful situations. When your body is under chronic stress, your cortisol levels remain high, and you can be more susceptible to disease. Here are six signs that your levels may be elevated.

Woman with insomnia lying in bed.


Your cortisol levels should be lower at nighttime, which is what allows your body to relax and recharge. But if your cortisol levels are consistently too high, you may feel wide awake when it’s time to go to sleep, even if you’ve felt sluggish during the day.

Doctor measuring an overweight man's waistline.

Belly fat

Cortisol directly affects fat storage and weight gain in stressed individuals. High levels of cortisol are associated with overeating, craving high caloric fatty and sugary foods and relocating fat from the circulation and storage depots to the deep internal abdominal area.

Man with cold

Frequent colds

The key factor that influences a person’s vulnerability to illness appears to be the immune system’s sensitivity to cortisol, not the cortisol levels per se, according to a 2012 study. The research team found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which can promote the development and progression of disease.

Unhappy middle age couple.

Low sex drive

In men, elevated cortisol levels signals the body to testosterone levels and blocks the normal response of the testicles to testosterone. In women, cortisol will cause hormonal imbalance during the menstrual cycle, causing irregularity and low libido.

Woman talking with doctor about stomach pain

Ulcers and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Ulcers of the stomach and intestine are more common in people who are anxious, depressed or under stress. The most common stress-related gut disease may be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which includes a variety of intestinal disorders, including colitis, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and, occasionally, passing of mucus or blood.

Young woman sitting on the bed, heart racing.

Cardiovascular disease

When your body is experiencing the “fight or flight” response, your heart responds by increasing its rate and blood pressure. It can also shut down digestion and direct blood to the arms and legs, where it can fuel fighting/fleeing muscles. If you’re constantly stressed, this chronic cycle will eventually take its toll and can contribute to heart disease.

Overweight woman looking out the window.

Cushing’s syndrome

Around 1 in 200,000 people show symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s may occur if the body makes too much cortisol. Symptoms include, excessive weight gain, weak muscles, high blood pressure, a tendency to bruise easily and slow wound healing. A round ‘moon face’ is common. Treatment is in the form of cortisol suppressing medication.

Woman leaning against the couch in a bad mood.

Mood changes

Mood swings, irritability and low libido are commonplace. If the cause is related it Cushing’s syndrome it is not uncommon for depression to present itself as one of the leading symptoms.

Woman using anti-wrinkle cream on face.


Too much cortisol can cause an absence of menstrual periods. Women may also experience extra hair growth on the face, chest, neck, abdomen and thighs.

Allison Bush
Meet Our Writer
Allison Bush

Allison Bush is a former HealthCentral editor who covered a wide range of health topics.