Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to a number of unwanted side effects. The side effects of cortisol include weight gain or feelings of depression. They may also cause short-term effects on memory creation or retrieval and may even cause long-term memory loss. Cortisol administered medicinally, called hydrocortisone, may have the side effects of weight gain, depression, or skin conditions.
Cortisol is a type of hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress situations, which can include anything from intense exercising to dieting to emotional stress. It is important in that it helps the body to cope with stress by encouraging the breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates and fats to create quick fuel. The hormone is also involved in many important bodily functions, such as processing carbohydrates and maintaining blood sugar levels.
When administered medicinally, cortisol is called hydrocortisone. It often is prescribed to relieve inflammation and treat arthritis, allergies, and asthma. It also is used in the treatment of some types of cancer.
The side effects of cortisol when it is administered as hydrocortisone are varied. Common side effects include increased appetite or weight gain as well as puffiness of the face or neck. The drug may also have some mental side effects, such as depression, and too much hydrocortisone may increase rates of alcohol or substance abuse. More rare side effects include a burning or itching sensation of the skin, the formation of blood blisters on the skin, or numbness in the fingers.
The body releases cortisol when it is in a stressful situation. Problems arise when individuals are chronically or overly stressed and too much cortisol is released for too long a time. The side effects of cortisol include poor memory formation and memory retrieval. This is because the cortisol in the body is sending as much glucose, or fuel for the body, as possible to the muscles, and therefore the brain has less fuel, making it more difficult to create new memories. Cortisol also has an effect on neurotransmitters, interfering with the ability to retrieve long-term memories.
The side effects of chronically high levels of cortisol even can include brain damage. Cortisol reduces the amount of fuel that reaches the brain, which over time can damage the hippocampus. The hippocampus is one part of the brain related to memory. Those experiencing chronically high cortisol levels over their lives have a higher risk of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease as they age.
High cortisol levels can also affect weight gain, especially in women. Studies show that women with chronically high levels of cortisol have a higher likelihood of experiencing fat in their abdominal regions. Weight gain also occurs because cortisol encourages the breakdown and use of glucose; when this glucose is used up, the appetite is triggered, encouraging a higher calorie intake than would normally occur.
Side effects of cortisol also include hypertension, or high blood pressure; depression; and increased pre-menstrual symptoms in women. It is important to control stress levels in order to avoid both the long- and short-term side effects of cortisol. Some ways to deal with stress include meditation or exercise.