5 signs your cortisol levels are too high

By Georgia Day

From Vogue Scandinavia's August-September 2022 issue. Photo: Alexandra Sophie

We all need some cortisol, but too high levels can be bad for our health. Here, we look at five symptoms that signal that your cortisol levels are excessive

Internet searches for cortisol were spiking last week, with Google reporting that ‘how to reduce cortisol’ was the fourth most popular search in the UK over the last 90 days. While we all need some cortisol – the primary stress hormone – in order to regulate our metabolism and blood sugar and maintain a healthy hormonal balance, too much – the result of chronic, prolonged stress – can be damaging. If you think you may be suffering from sky-high cortisol exposure, the first step towards fixing is knowing how to recognise the signs.


Here are five symptoms that are worth paying attention to.


Excess belly fat

If you’re constantly feeling stressed, it can make you more likely to overeat, or make poor decisions when it comes to which foods to snack on. That said, weight gain around your stomach isn’t just indicative of eating the wrong thing, it’s also a direct result of too much cortisol in your system. When the body is put under stress, cortisol and adrenaline (another hormone produced as part of the stress response) are released to help prepare the body to cope. This increases the body’s metabolic rate and releases stored glucose, but any glucose that isn’t used is converted into fat and stored in the abdomen. The reason this accumulates quickly is down to the type of stress threat faced, which is less likely to be a physical one (such as running away from a tiger), and more likely to be a psychological one (like an overflowing inbox). Because of this, you’re less likely to burn through that glucose, meaning most of it heads straight to your belly.


Disrupted sleep

An out of control cortisol curve can play havoc with your sleep patterns, so any problems with dropping off, or finding yourself waking up in the night, could be signs that your cortisol levels are out of whack. A healthy cortisol curve is characterised by high cortisol in the morning which slowly declines before reaching a low right before bed. A misaligned curve is essentially the opposite: higher than desired levels at night, which can cause wakefulness and restlessness and prevent you from getting enough sleep.


A puffy face

A swollen or an overly rounded face (sometimes referred to as moon face) occurs when excess cortisol encourages the body to store extra fat on the sides of the face. Too much can also cause the body to retain extra water, which might also explain why your face appears puffier than normal when you’re stressed. In some cases, a swollen face is also a sign of Cushing’s syndrome, which occurs when your body produces too much cortisol or receives too much because of long-term use of drugs such as steroids.


Reduced healing

If you find yourself with cuts, bruises or aches and pains that just won’t seem to get better, excess cortisol could be to blame. Higher than normal levels of the hormone inhibit the production of molecules called cytokines, which are responsible for triggering the body’s healing process and dampening down inflammation. Coupled with the inflammation that chronic cortisol exposure causes on its own, it’s no wonder your body might be struggling to recover.


Constant bloating

Continuously high cortisol forces the body to alter or shut down functions that might get in the way of a focus on immediate survival, and digestion is often one of the first systems to be affected. As part of its role in regulating several functions in the body, cortisol is responsible for regulating salt and mineral uptake. When we’re stressed, excess cortisol increases salt levels and causes the body to hold on to more water than it needs. Reduced blood flow to the digestive system also interferes with bowel motility, which creates bacterial imbalances in the gut. Impacting the bacterial balance can lead to maldigestion of certain carbohydrates, which causes excess gas to be produced. This, combined with the increased water, causes bloating to occur.

Originally published by British Vogue.