Cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone," is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, usually released in times of stress. Cortisol helps regulate many bodily functions and processes, including regulating blood pressure, cardiovascular functioning and helping the body metabolize proteins, carbohydrates and fats, says MayoClinic.com, the website of the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic. Cortisol levels vary for many reasons, but if cortisol levels are significantly elevated, it may be a sign of an underlying medical problem.
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When an individual is faced with a perceived stressor or danger, the body sends out hormones that help with the fight-or-flight reaction. If the body is constantly under stress, levels of these hormones rise because of excess production. Cortisol is one of these hormones; it is the primary stress hormone, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it increases sugars in the bloodstream. The hormone also affects the digestive system, the immune system, growth processes and the reproductive system. Prolonged stress results in a prolonged release of cortisol and higher cortisol levels, which can then, in turn, cause illness in the body. These illnesses include digestive problems, obesity, sleep problems and depression.
Some tumors stimulate the production of cortisol, including pituitary gland tumors and an ectopic ACTH-secreting tumor, the Mayo Clinic notes. The pituitary gland is located on the base of the brain and a tumor on this gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH, which then stimulates cortisol production. This results in a surplus of the hormones and leads to Cushing's disease. An ectopic ACTH-secreting tumor is a tumor that secretes this hormone but is not in an organ that usually makes this hormone, like the lung.
Medications and Other Illnesses
According to the University of Michigan Health System, other variables may elevate cortisol levels, including pregnancy; low blood sugar; eating, drinking or exercising before the test; severe liver or kidney disease; hyperthyroidism and taking medications. Medications that may impact cortisol levels include birth control pills, estrogen, amphetamines and corticosteroids.
Primary Adrenal Gland Diseases
Some elevated cortisol levels are not a result of the overproduction of ACTH, but are caused by adrenal gland disorders. Adrenal adenomas are the most common cause; these are benign tumors on the adrenal cortex that cause an overload of cortisol secretion. Other symptoms of adrenal adenomas are obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other adrenal tumors may also cause excess amounts of testosterone or estrogen, breast growth in men, impotence, acne and abnormal menstrual periods in women, says the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.