The Effects Of Cortisol

By Michael Biamonte, C.C.N.

The hormone cortisol is essential to health. It is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. A lack of cortisol produces exhaustion, chronic fatigue and diseases of the endocrine system such as Addison’s disease. Cortisol helps to regulate inflammatory responses in the body as well as balancing blood sugar in times of stress. It is commonly produced in higher amounts when stress is present. Recently, a lot of attention has been directed to the effects of excess cortisol. Today, with stress levels being higher than in the past, more people have excess cortisol levels. Lets look at some of the effects of high cortisol.


Cortisol can directly suppress DHEA and PROGESTERONE. It can also suppress thyroid activity. This means that all of the conditions and symptoms associated with low DHEA, low PROGESTERONE or low thyroid can be caused by high cortisol. Cortisol can mobilize calcium from our bones, and circulate it back into our blood stream. This means that an excess of cortisol will cause bone loss and therefore osteoporosis. Used as a medication, cortisol is given in auto-immune illnesses to suppress the immune system. It is also used in Leukemia to suppress the excess number of white blood cells. However, this also means that in a person without these diseases, excess cortisol can suppress the immune system and cause disease. Patients with HIV, Chronic fatigue, candida, parasites, cancer etc. should be aware that if their cortisol elevates, it will worsen their conditions due to immune suppression.


Candida and parasites can both be caused by high cortisol for one simple reason: excess cortisol destroys friendly bacteria just like antibiotics do. This will cause the candida and parasites to spread. Cortisol also elevates blood sugar. This means the sugar could feed the candida or even start, or worsen, diabetic conditions. Weight gain around the abdominal region is common from stress induced high cortisol. If you have ever noticed someone under prolonged stress starting to gain weight it may not be their diet. Cortisol can send fat to the stomach region for storage. ‘Fat Pads” are a common sign of high cortisol. A “moon faced” look is common on those who take cortisol medications. Both memory loss and loss of general cognitive (learning) ability have been long associated with high cortisol. Mood swings are also common. Most patients who correct their elevated cortisol level find that they sleep better and feel, overall, calmer.


The following are a list of physical signs of elevated cortisol. Anyone can experience any of these symptoms from time to time without having elevated cortisol. However, the more of them you are or have experienced, the greater the chance that your cortisol is elevated.

  1. Easy bruising
  2. Poor muscle tone or muscle wasting.
  3. Poor wound healing
  4. Thin skin
  5. Stretch marks
  6. Excess scar tissue
  7. Fat pads
  8. Chronic yeast infections
  9. Accelerated skin aging
  10. Puffy flabby skin
  11. Water retention
  12. Moon face


Under times of stress cortisol can elevate. It may stay elevated until the stress is resolved. However, if nutrition is inadequate, the adrenals will exhaust and not have the nutrients needed to keep up the cortisol production. When this happens, the cortisol level will drop or crash below normal. This is called a “burnout”. The high stress executive who suddenly finds himself exhausted, gaining weight, his energy and sex drive gone is a good example of this.


The approach to handle high cortisol and low are totally different. If cortisol is high, nutrients can be used which signal both the adrenal glands and the pituitary glands to reduce the cortisol production. Luckily, these nutrients do not suppress cortisol below normal, rather, they reset it. If cortisol is low, pantothenic acid, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and the herbs ginseng and licorice may help restore it. Excessive exercise will worsen the condition. Exercise must be easy and not exhausting.