Does a High Cortisol Level Cause Anxiety?

September 9, 2022
Does cortisol cause anxiety
Anxiety Treatment
Does a High Cortisol Level Cause Anxiety?

Cortisol and anxiety are closely linked due to the role this hormone plays in the body. The two are connected with stress, and new evidence shows that high cortisol levels and anxiety can influence the occurrence of one another.

To better understand the relationship between the two, let’s learn more about what cortisol is, its role in the body, how to know that cortisol levels are high, and how to prevent it.

Want to know if you have an anxiety disorder? Contact mental health professionals at Mango Clinic to get a diagnosis.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is known as the stress hormone, and while that is true, it only tells part of its functions. Its stress-related reputation comes from its role in facilitating the fight-or-flight mechanism. The adrenal glands make and release cortisol in the body in response to fear or stress. When cortisol is released, it increases both breathing and heart rates. It also leads to a boost in sugar levels, increasing energy.

Cortisol also reduces the response to pain and boosts short-term memory, all of which are aimed to help a person survive threatening situations and recover from stress.

Other roles of cortisol in the body include:

  • Controlling blood pressure
  • Controlling fats, proteins, and carbohydrate metabolism
  • Regulating blood sugar levels
  • Controlling sleep and wake cycles
  • Alleviating inflammation in the body

Do High Cortisol Levels Cause Anxiety?

So, does cortisol cause anxiety? Generally, the correlation between anxiety and cortisol exists. Initially, high cortisol levels appear to be a symptom of anxiety and not a cause. However, new findings present different insights. First, in one example to demonstrate whether high cortisol levels result in anxiety, rats exposed to cortisol for a long time demonstrated anxiety behavior.

Further evidence is found in treating anxiety and depression, where lowering cortisol levels with antidepressant medications (SSRIs) significantly impacted the patient’s recovery speed and improved anxiety symptoms.

Finally, there is a likelihood that certain symptoms of high cortisol levels, like sleep problems, problems with digestion, and headaches, further contribute to building anxiety and keeping your body constantly stressed.

Cortisol levels and anxiety

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

High cortisol levels can cause significant damage to your body. If someone has high cortisol levels for a prolonged time, the condition called Cushing’s syndrome can occur in severe cases. Symptoms of prolonged cortisol elevation in the body may include:

  • Weight gain
  • Thinning skin
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Increased irritability
  • Easy bruising and slow healing
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irregular periods
  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Weak bones

Note: The severe symptoms usually present in patients when cortisol levels are high for a long time due to underlying causes, such as tumors of the pituitary or adrenal glands.

Doctors at Mango Clinic are ready to conduct a detailed evaluation of your mental health and recommend seeing other doctors if extra tests are needed.

Causes of High Cortisol Levels

Causes of high cortisol levels vary and include both psychological and physical ones. The main ones include:

  • Physical and emotional stress, whether something as simple as catching a cold or being in a traffic jam, can easily kickstart a stress response, and prolonged exposure to stress will increase your cortisol levels in the body.
  • Certain medications, especially oral contraceptives or corticosteroids, increase cortisol levels.
  • Estrogen levels can also affect the levels of cortisol in the body. High estrogen levels in women, for example, during pregnancy, increase cortisol.
  • A tumor in the adrenal gland, whether malignant or benign, can result in the glands releasing high amounts of hormones, including cortisol.
  • Issues in the pituitary glands can lead to an increase in cortisol levels. That’s because the pituitary gland is responsible for releasing the hormone (ACTH) that triggers adrenal glands to release cortisol. Some pituitary conditions that can affect the pituitary gland include tumors and hyperpituitarism (a state where this gland is overactive).
  • Medical conditions: certain medical conditions like depression, alcoholism, and diabetes can increase the levels of cortisol in the body.

How to Reduce Cortisol Levels

How you reduce your cortisol levels is largely dependent on the cause of their elevation. Thus, working with your physician should you notice Cushing’s syndrome symptoms is important. Given that prolonged stress is one of the main causes of stress, there are general tips you can use to calm yourself down and allow the body to reset cortisol levels back to their optimum state. Some tips include:

  • Do what you love and enjoy to improve your mood to help calm your stress. It could be singing, dancing, listening to music, reading books, or any other hobby.
  • Have quality sleep daily, ensuring you get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Engage in physical activity, ensuring you have either 150 minutes of moderate aerobic or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. It provides a healthy outlet and boosts your mood.
Anxiety and high cortisol levels
  • Eat a healthy diet that leaves you energetic and boosts your mental health, not one that leaves you full and tired. Your diet should have plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and oily fish.
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness using breathing exercises and yoga, among other techniques. It helps keep your mind in the present and away from worry while relieving stress.
  • Use supplements like omega-3, magnesium, ashwagandha, vitamin B complex, and others that are linked to low cortisol levels. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting any supplement.

Summing Up

Even though there are not a lot of studies observing this issue, some kind of correlation between anxiety and cortisol levels exists. That is why and for other reasons, maintaining the right cortisol levels in your body is vital to your well-being and general health.

The presence of cortisol in almost all vital systems means low or a high level can wreck your body functions resulting in symptoms that further affect your mental health. Contact a doctor immediately when you show the symptoms discussed above for further guidance.


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