High cortisol levels in women and negative effects on the body

Reviewed by Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

When you live in a constant high-alert state, your adrenal glands are often forced to produce too much of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time this leads to a state of adrenal imbalance and even adrenal fatigue in your body. High cortisol can be the trigger for adrenal stress symptoms and related long-term health problems.

woman stressed

Table of contents

  1. What is cortisol?
  2. Signs and symptoms of high cortisol in women
  3. The negative effects of high cortisol
  4. How to know if your cortisol levels is too high
  5. How to lower cortisol and relieve adrenal fatigue

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is one of the body’s main stress hormones. When you are under stress and your body’s fight or flight response kicks in, cortisol quickly comes to your rescue, mobilizing carbohydrates and fat for instant energy. But even when you’re not in danger, cortisol hums along in the background assisting your body with key everyday functions.

Cortisol helps to:

  • Regulate your blood pressure,
  • Convert food into energy,
  • Regulate the effects of insulin,
  • Reduce inflammation, and
  • Support the body’s natural sleep/wake cycles.

High Cortisol Signs and Symptoms in Women

When cortisol production is balanced, levels of the hormone naturally rise and fall during the day. These patterns are tightly connected to your circadian rhythm sleep/wake cycle.

Cortisol levels are usually lowest between midnight and 4:00 AM and then gradually increase until around 8:00 AM. Rising cortisol helps you to wake up and start the day. After 8:00 AM, cortisol declines incrementally throughout the day to gradually prepare you for sleep.

This daily rhythm is the norm -- unless you encounter a stressful event. In response to danger, your body temporarily raises levels of cortisol and adrenaline to handle the stressful event. After the stressors have passed, cortisol and adrenaline levels return to normal.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Yet when chronic stress leads to unnaturally high cortisol levels, it creates a state of adrenal imbalance that often triggers a cascade of adrenal-related symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Low sex drive
  • Sleeplessness
  • Weight gain (especially belly fat)
  • Impaired healing and cell regeneration
  • Disrupted digestion, mental function (brain fog) and metabolism
  • Weakened ability to fight infection
  • Imbalances in other important hormones such as DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
  • Loss of muscle and bone
  • Mood swings and depression
  • Hair and skin problems
  • Thyroid imbalances

How high cortisol impairs your health

Negative effects of high cortisol

Adrenal imbalance in women tends to peak between the ages of 35 and 55 and most often shows up in one of the following ways:

  • You're always active and feel "wired." Your system is constantly fueled by adrenaline and cortisol to create what feels like a continual state of hyper-energy. Yet you often feel drained.
  • You can't get up in the morning — but you can't sleep at night. Your natural 24-cycle of energy and relaxation is off-balance. If you're able to fall asleep, you may wake up in the middle of the night fully alert.
  • You have no energy — period. You feel exhausted all the time. Even getting out of bed often feels like a challenge. You may also experience intense cravings and unexplained weight gain.

Adrenal imbalance may be a factor in many other serious conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, arthritis, anxiety at night and more.

How to know if your cortisol levels is too high

Unfortunately standard tests of adrenal function aren’t very helpful. If your primary care practitioner calls for a typical laboratory cortisol test, it will be difficult to see anything more than the most severe cases of adrenal dysfunction, such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome.

We recommend finding a practitioner who is willing to do salivary cortisol testing, which measures cortisol levels and a hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) throughout the day.

A lab test isn’t necessary to determine if you have adrenal fatigue or high cortisol, however. You can simply check in with how you feel. If your energy level is very low in the morning but seems to increase right around the time everyone else is getting ready for bed, your cortisol cycle is probably out of whack. It’s a good indication that you will reap huge benefits by taking steps to rebalance your adrenal glands.

How to lower cortisol and relieve adrenal fatigue

In our experience, women with mild to moderate adrenal imbalance have several options that can help them feel significantly better while keeping symptoms from becoming more severe.

The key is taking the right steps to normalize cortisol levels and restore healthy adrenal function. You can take immediate action by asking yourself these simple questions:

Are you eating in tune with your natural cortisol curve?

  • When you eat your meals is just as important as what you eat to rebalance your adrenal glands. The goal is to achieve more stable energy levels throughout the day, which you can accomplish by eating three balanced meals with two snacks.
  • What you eat does make a difference too! Try to reduce refined carbohydrates — such as sugar, flour, potatoes, and white rice — which cause stressful ups and downs in your blood sugar that can lead to adrenal imbalance. We know this can be difficult, so just do the best you can. The goal is progress, rather than perfection!

How can nutritional supplements support your adrenal glands?

  • High-quality vitamins and minerals help support a healthy metabolism and hormonal balance, which contribute to adrenal health. Our Essential Nutrients, with 30 vitamins and minerals, is an easy-to-take formulation that builds a strong nutritional foundation.
  • Specific herbal supplements, such as astragalus root and eleuthuro (Siberian ginseng), are effective at reducing the negative side effects of stress. Others, such as passionflower, produce calming effects and encourage sleep. Many of these herbs are found in our natural formulations Adaptisol and Serinisol.

Which lifestyle changes are best to restore adrenal balance?

  • We can't always reduce stress, but we can take steps to reduce its effects on our lives. Take time to understand where your stress is coming from, and then think about how you'll make changes that are right for you and your lifestyle. It's helpful to make a list of stressors that interfere with your well being, especially those that are ongoing or self-imposed.
  • Get more rest. Your body needs down time to heal! Aim for at least 7-8 hours a night. Be in bed and sleeping by 10:00 or 10:30 PM. at the latest. If you need to unwind, or it takes you a little bit to fall asleep, then get to bed at 9:00 or 9:30 PM.
  • Get more gentle. Choose forms of physical exercise that calm you down instead of rev you up. Walking, yoga, Tai Chi and other forms of low impact exercise can do wonders for the adrenals. On the other hand, high intensity exercise can trigger cortisol production. Listen to your body. If a certain form of exercise makes you feel worse instead of better, move on and try something else.

Remember, it took a lot of time for high cortisol levels to develop and so it’s going to take time to bring your adrenals back to balance. As you work towards this goal, be kind to yourself, be proactive about all the many changes you can make and steps you can take -- and know that you will be well again!


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Published: December 22, 2020 - Last Updated: April 12, 2021

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