What are the side effects of excessive cortisol?

Cortisol is our stress hormone; excessive levels can lead to weight gain and related risk factors (diabetes), bone thinning and a higher risk of anxiety. Watch naturopathic doctor Alan Christianson, ND, explain why too much cortisol can be harmful.
What are the side effects of excessive cortisol?

Elevated cortisol levels are associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar, and weight gain. To appreciate the full effect of excessive cortisol secretion on our physiology, let's take a look at the well-known side effects of a drug form of cortisol, prednisone. Used primarily in allergic and inflammatory conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, prednisone d is by far the most often prescribed oral corticosteroid. It blocks many key steps in the allergic and inflammatory response, including the production and secretion of compounds that promote inflammation by white blood cells. This disruption of the normal defense functions of the white blood cells is great at stopping the inflammatory response, but it essentially cripples the immune system. Long-term use of prednisone also causes abdominal obesity, puffiness of the face ("moon face"), and accumulation of fat in the upper back ("buffalo hump").

The side effects of prednisone relate to dosage levels and length of time on the drug. Most of the side effects are not due to taking too much of the drug for a short period of time, but rather are due to long-term use, even at lower dosages. At lower doses (less than 10 mg per day) the most notable side effects are usually increased appetite, weight gain, retention of salt and water, and increased susceptibility to infection.

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Hunger Free Forever: The New Science of Appetite Control

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Cortisol is a steriod hormone produced by the adrenal gland that controls the blood sugar levels, aids in metabolism and suppresses the immune system when necessary. Excessive levels of cortisol in the body can destroy good bacteria in the body.

Too much cortisol, known as Cushing’s syndrome, can have unwanted side effects in the form of obesity, diabetes, muscle weakness and breakdown, change in distribution of fat in the body (skinny arms and legs, big belly), thin skin, striae (purple lines on the abdomen similar to stretch marks), and brittle bones leading to osteoporosis and fractures. Depression, memory problems, and cataracts can also result from excess cortisol. Growth and puberty can be interrupted in children. Females can have difficulty getting pregnant. People with too much cortisol are also at increased risk for infection and may not heal wounds well.

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Continue Learning about Endocrine System

Endocrine System

Your endocrine system works with your nervous system to control important bodily functions. The endocrine systems responsibilities include regulating growth, sexual development and function, metabolism and mood. The endocrine syst...

em also helps give your body the energy it needs to function properly. Endocrine glands secrete hormones into the bloodstream. Hormones are considered chemical messengers, coordinating your body by transferring information from one set of cells to another. Your endocrine system health can be affected by hormone imbalances resulting from impaired glands. A hormone imbalance can cause problems with bodily growth, sexual development, metabolism and other bodily functions. Endocrine system diseases or conditions include diabetes, growth disorders and osteoporosis.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.