Are you too stressed? 7 Signs of High Cortisol (and what to do about it)

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Stress. For most of us, it’s just a normal part of life, right?

We spend a good chunk of our weeks feeling stretched to the max and overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks still left undone on that neverending list of things to do.

Half the time we’re running on adrenaline and can’t turn off our brain, and the other half we just want to crawl into a ball and just veg out to get away from the constant flow of thoughts and worries and things we need to take care of.

And if you’re feeling this way right now, I promise you—you’re definitely not alone.

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But just because all this ongoing stress and anxiety is COMMON, doesn’t mean it’s okay.

In fact, when it comes to our health, chronic stress is pretty devastating because high cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—can set off a chain reaction of hormonal imbalance in our bodies that affects everything else we do.

And so it begs the question—exactly how stressed are you, really?

Should you be concerned? How do you know if your cortisol is too high? 

And what can you do about it?

Because the reality is that for women, especially women over 40, losing weight is HARD. The deck is already stacked against us, between the damage that’s been done by a lifetime of eating the Standard American Diet and all the hormonal changes that start to happen as we get older. So when you throw in chronic stress and elevated cortisol to the mix, it’s almost like the Perfect Storm.

And it’s hard to fight back against all that, especially if you’re following the same old diet advice that tells us just to cut back on calories or to eat less and exercise more.

Because in case you’re not aware, THAT DOESN’T WORK.

Successful weight loss has nothing to do with calories. It’s all about hormones.

And that’s why today, I want to specifically talk about ONE hormone in particular that has a HUGE impact on the way we feel and the way our bodies function—and that is the hormone cortisol.

Because when your cortisol levels get out of control—and believe me, this is something that happens to ALL of us at some point or another—it can have a devastating impact on your health and well-being. And that’s why it’s SO important to understand some of the big warning signs that your cortisol is higher than it should be.

Understanding How Cortisol Works

But before we talk about those things to watch out for, there’s a few things you need to understand.

First of all, it’s important to understand that cortisol is a HORMONE, and not just any hormone, but what is often referred to as the STRESS hormone.

It’s the hormone that our bodies produce in response to stress, and it’s designed to help us deal with that stress—basically, it helps to regulate our blood pressure and blood sugar, it helps to reduce inflammation, it helps to regulate our metabolism and our immune system, and it also helps us to deal with those fight or flight responses that we experience when we’re under stress.

And in and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s actually a very good thing, because our bodies were designed to deal with stress in this way. Back in caveman times, when we were being chased by a saber tooth tiger, this is the hormone that would have helped us to either fight that tiger or run away from it—hence the name “fight or flight” response.

But here’s the thing—in today’s world, we’re not usually being chased by tigers, but we still have all this stress—in fact, often our stress is even worse, because it’s not just physical, it’s mental and emotional as well. We have stress at work, we have stress in our relationships, we have stress from our finances or our kids or our health. We have stress from the constant barrage of information that comes at us 24/7 from our phones and our social media and our email. We have stress from what we see happening in the world around us.

And what happens is that ALL of this stress causes our cortisol levels to go up. And in the short term, that might be okay. Our bodies were designed to handle short-term stress. But the problem is that for most of us, the stress is pretty much constant, and that means that our cortisol levels stay elevated, ALL THE TIME.

And that’s where the problems start to happen.

Because when your cortisol levels stay elevated for long periods of time, it starts to have a negative impact on your health. It can lead to things like anxiety and depression and fatigue. It can cause you to gain weight, or make it harder for you to lose weight. It can lead to digestive problems or heart disease or diabetes or high blood pressure. It can wreck havoc with your sleep and your immune system. It can cause your hair to fall out and your skin to break out and your face to puff up. It can cause you to lose your sex drive and for your periods to become irregular or even stop altogether.

And those are just the things that we can SEE.

Because the even BIGGER problem with high cortisol is that it can often mask other hormone problems, because it’s so interconnected with all of the other hormones in your body. If your cortisol is out of whack, it can throw everything else out of whack too.

And that’s why it’s SO important to get your cortisol levels under control—because when you do that, it has a domino effect on all the other hormones in your body. It’s like pulling the key piece out of a puzzle. Suddenly everything starts to fit together better, and your body can start to heal itself from the inside out.

So that’s a little bit of background on what cortisol is and why it’s so important. And while there are tests you can take to measure your cortisol, for most people, just taking a look at the SYMPTOMS of high cortisol is a really good starting point. Because when you understand what to look for, it becomes pretty obvious what’s going on inside your body.

Common Signs of High Cortisol

So with that said, let’s talk about some of the most common signs that your cortisol levels may be too high.

Sign 1: You’re always tired (but you can’t sleep)

The first and probably most obvious sign that your cortisol levels may be too high is fatigue—and not just regular fatigue, but the kind of fatigue where you feel like you’re just constantly exhausted, no matter how much sleep you get. Or maybe you’re having a hard time sleeping at all, because you just can’t turn off your brain.

And that’s because one of the ways cortisol affects our bodies is by regulating what’s called the circadian rhythm—basically the internal clock that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to wake up. When our cortisol levels are in balance, they should be highest in the morning to help wake us up, and then gradually decrease throughout the day, so that by night time, we’re ready to go to sleep.

But when your cortisol levels are too high, especially in the evening, it can make it really hard for you to fall asleep or stay asleep, which then leads to even more fatigue during the day, which then leads to even higher cortisol levels—and it becomes this vicious cycle that’s really hard to break.

Sign 2: You’re gaining weight (especially around your middle)

Another really common sign of high cortisol is weight gain—especially weight gain around your middle. Because when your cortisol levels are too high, it can cause your body to release more insulin, which then leads to insulin resistance and higher blood sugar levels, which then leads to even more weight gain. And this can all happen even if you’re eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly—basically you’re doing all the right things, but your cortisol levels are totally throwing everything out of whack.

Sign 3: You’re always stressed out

The third sign that your cortisol levels may be too high is, not surprisingly, that you’re always feeling stressed out. Now, this might seem obvious, since we’ve been talking about how cortisol is the STRESS hormone.

But here’s the thing—cortisol is actually what’s known as an “inflammatory” hormone, which means that when it’s too high, it can actually cause inflammation in your body. And that inflammation can show up in a lot of different ways—it can show up as anxiety or depression or brain fog. It can show up as digestive problems or heartburn or acid reflux. It can show up as chronic pain or headaches or even migraines. It can show up as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. It can show up as allergies or asthma or skin rashes or even eczema.

So if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s likely a sign that your cortisol levels are too high and you’re experiencing inflammation as a result.

Sign 4: Your sex drive has disappeared

Another common sign of high cortisol in women is a decreased sex drive. That’s because when your cortisol levels are too high, it can throw all of your other hormones out of whack as well—including your estrogen and progesterone, which are the hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle and your libido. And not only can high cortisol levels lead to a decreased sex drive, they can also cause your periods to become irregular or even stop altogether. And that’s not good.

Sign 5: You’re always hungry (and not for healthy food)

Have you ever noticed that when you’re feeling stressed out, all you want to do is eat? That’s because high cortisol levels can also cause you to have an insatiable appetite—especially for unhealthy foods. That’s because cortisol actually affects the part of your brain that controls hunger and cravings, so when your cortisol levels are too high, it can make it really hard for you to resist those not-so-healthy foods.

But the problem is, those unhealthy foods just make your cortisol levels even higher, and then you get caught in this horrible cycle of stress and cravings and more stress.

Sign 6: You’re losing your hair (and gaining acne)

Another common sign of high cortisol is hair loss and acne. That’s because cortisol can actually cause your hair follicles to go into what’s called a “resting phase” which then leads to hair loss or thinning. And it can also cause your skin to produce more oil, which then leads to acne and breakouts. And while that might seem like a small thing, it can have a HUGE impact on the way you feel about yourself and your self-confidence.

Sign 7: You have a hard time getting motivated

And finally, the last sign that your cortisol levels may be too high is that you’re just having a really hard time getting motivated. That’s because while cortisol is often associated with stress, it’s also the hormone that helps to regulate our motivation and our drive. So when your cortisol levels are too high, it can actually make it really hard for you to get going or to feel motivated to do anything.

And that’s a problem, because when you don’t have motivation, it’s really hard to make any progress—not just in getting healthy, but in anything you want to accomplish in life.

So those are 7 of the most common signs that your cortisol levels may be too high: fatigue and difficulty sleeping, unexplained weight gain, feeling stressed out and inflamed, decreased sex drive and irregular periods, insatiable hunger and food cravings, hair loss and acne, and a lack of motivation.

And while it’s not unusual for women to experience one or two of these symptoms from time to time, if you’re experiencing several of them ALL AT ONCE, then it’s probably a good sign that your cortisol levels are out of whack.

And that means it’s time to start doing something about it. So what can you do?

How to Reduce Your Cortisol Levels

Well, the good news is that there’s actually a LOT you can do to help get your cortisol levels back into a healthy range. And while it’s not always easy—especially if you’ve been dealing with high cortisol for a long time—the reality is that it’s totally possible to reverse the damage that’s been done, and to start feeling better and more balanced.

But it does take time, and it does require making some changes in your life, and actually being CONSISTENT with those changes.

Because it’s like I always say—your body is not a light switch. It’s not something you can just turn on or off whenever you feel like it. Your body is a complex system of interconnected processes and hormones, and they all work best when they’re working together.

So any time you’re trying to heal your body and get your hormones back into balance, you have to take a holistic approach. You can’t just focus on healing your adrenals or changing your diet or losing weight—you have to focus on ALL of it, because it’s all interconnected. You have to look at what you’re putting into your body, as well as what you’re doing with your body. You have to look at what you’re putting into your MIND, as well as what you’re doing with your mind. You have to look at what you’re doing for your SPIRIT, as well as what you’re doing for your relationships and your social life.

Everything matters. It’s all connected.

So with that said, here are five things you can start doing right away to help get your cortisol levels back into a healthy range.

First, start by just being AWARE of your cortisol levels. 

Like I said at the beginning, there are actually tests you can take to find out what your cortisol levels are and whether or not they’re within a healthy range. So if you’re really struggling with some of these symptoms, you might want to consider getting tested. You can go to your doctor for this, but honestly, a lot of doctors don’t really know what to do with this information. So I usually recommend working with a functional medicine doctor, or finding a naturopath in your area. You can also order testing kits online, and there are also more and more online functional health clinics opening up all the time, so that might be something to look into if you can’t find a functional doctor in your area.

The second thing you’ll want to do is focus on reducing inflammation in your body. 

That’s because inflammation and high cortisol levels usually go hand in hand. 

And the best way to do this is to start changing the way you eat, because frankly if your diet right now is basically the Standard American Diet, which is high in sugar and processed foods and carbohydrates, you’re just making the problem SO much worse.

And please understand when I say this, I’m NOT talking about going on yet another diet and trying to cut calories. Honestly I think that’s what makes our TAS program so easy to follow and to stick with long term. Because it’s NOT a diet. There’s no deprivation. It’s just eating the RIGHT foods—the nutrient dense proteins and healthy fats that will nourish your body and make you feel good, while at the same time balancing your hormones and healing your gut. Weight loss is just the side effect, the added bonus.

The third thing is to make sure you’re getting plenty of high-quality sleep. 

I know this can be easier said than done, especially when you’re feeling stressed out and exhausted, but there are a lot of things you can do to help improve your sleep. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure you’re creating a good sleep environment—that means keeping your bedroom cool and dark, and avoiding screens for at least an hour before bedtime. You can also try incorporating relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation before bed, and making sure you’re getting enough exercise throughout the day to help you sleep better at night.

But sleep does have a big impact, so take it seriously.

The fourth thing you can do is try to get more physical activity.

And this one is tricky, because exercise can actually RAISE your cortisol if it’s the wrong thing. So let me be clear—I’m not talking about forcing yourself to go to the gym or to do a bunch of strenuous stuff you hate. That will NOT lower your cortisol.

Instead, try to find things you ACTUALLY enjoy and look forward to doing, even if it’s not “real” exercise. Taking a leisurely walk outside has so many INCREDIBLE benefits for your cortisol health—you’re getting fresh air, enjoying nature, taking the time to just think and relax. Or maybe it’s playing with your dogs or your kids or your grandkids. It could be learning how to play pickleball or walking on the beach, or even gardening. But find something.

Finally, be sure to find ways to manage stress levels in your daily life.

This could mean setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and finding healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. It also means making time for relaxation and self-care, perhaps with activities like meditation, yoga, or journaling. And don’t be afraid to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist if needed.

Remember, managing stress is an ongoing process and it’s important to find what works best for you. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time and experimentation to find the right balance, but do know that if you’re dealing with a lot of stress right now, finding a way to manage your cortisol will have a bigger impact than you could probably ever imagine.

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About the Author: AZ