8 Signs Your Skin Is Trying To Tell You Your Cortisol Is Too High

Cortisol is an important hormone produced by the adrenal glands that regulates metabolism, blood sugar, blood pressure, inflammation, sleep cycles and more. While some cortisol is essential, too much or too little can be problematic. High cortisol levels can manifest in various ways on the skin and body. Here are 8 signs your skin and body may be indicating excess cortisol production.

Weight Gain in Face, Neck and Torso

One of the most common signs of elevated cortisol is weight gain in characteristic areas. Weight gain may occur prominently in the face, leading to “moon facies” or a rounding of the cheeks. Fatty deposits can also emerge on the back of the neck and upper back, sometimes described as a “buffalo hump.” The torso may accumulate fat while the arms and legs remain slim, resulting in “truncal obesity.” In rare cases, fatty deposits can develop behind the eyes.

Thin, Fragile Skin

Chronically high cortisol thins the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deeper layer) of skin. This leads to skin fragility, especially on the elbows, knees, and backs of hands. The skin appears shiny and translucent, likened to “cigarette paper.” Underlying blood vessels become more visible. Skin becomes prone to tearing with minor trauma, like removing tape.

Stretch Marks

Suddenly increased weight from high cortisol can cause stretch marks or striae. Cortisol-induced stretch marks are wider (about 1 cm) with a bright purple-red hue, unlike the pink or white striae seen in pregnancy and adolescence. Stretch marks may emerge on the abdomen, buttocks, thighs, breasts and back.

Acanthosis Nigricans

This refers to velvety, dark patches on the skin, usually occurring on the neck, underarms, and other folds. It signifies insulin resistance, which cortisol influences. The high insulin levels trigger skin cell growth, leading to acanthosis nigricans’ trademark texture and color.

Steroid Acne

Acne stemming from high cortisol levels is sudden, severe and can cover large areas like the face, chest, back and arms. The blemishes tend to be uniform in size and look (monomorphic). Steroid acne may be linked to overgrowth of the yeast pityrosporum on the skin.

Hair Changes

Too much cortisol can shift hair growth patterns. It may prompt androgenetic alopecia, causing sudden excessive thinning of the hair on the scalp. Some women develop hirsutism, which is male-pattern hair growth on the face and body. Increased “peach fuzz” hair may also emerge on the face and body.

Delayed Wound Healing

By tamping down inflammation, high cortisol slows the wound healing process. Small cuts and tears take longer to heal and are more prone to infection. Bruises around wounds may be larger. The risk of scarring increases as well.

Increased Skin Infections

With a weakened immune system from elevated cortisol, the skin is more vulnerable to fungal and yeast infections. Conditions like athlete’s foot, ringworm, toenail fungus and tinea versicolor become more common. High cortisol provides an environment favorable to the growth of yeasts like candida. This can trigger candidal rashes and steroid acne.

What Causes High Cortisol?

There are various potential causes of elevated cortisol:

  • Medications – Corticosteroid creams, systemic steroids like prednisone
  • Supplements – Adrenal support supplements with undisclosed steroids
  • Tumors – Pituitary tumors, adrenal gland tumors, lung tumors
  • Stress – Chronic stress stimulates cortisol production
  • Cushing’s syndrome – Rare endocrine disorder causing very high cortisol

Cortisol Levels Can Be Restored To A Healthy Balance

In moderation, the hormone cortisol is essential to health. But excessive levels can emerge from medications, tumors or chronic stress. This manifests in weight gain patterns, skin changes, hair growth abnormalities and more. Being aware of the signs of cortisol excess can help identify any underlying issues that need medical attention.

Consult a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of prolonged high cortisol levels. Treatment may involve adjusting medications, managing stress levels, or surgically removing tumours responsible for overproduction. With proper management, cortisol levels can be restored to a healthy balance.

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