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Cushing Syndrome: What Causes Excess Cortisol?

Cushing Syndrome: What Causes Excess Cortisol?
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Cushing Syndrome

Cushing Syndrome refers to an excess of the cortisol hormone, which is also known as the “stress hormone.” This can happen from exposure to too much cortisol or when the body is just producing too much cortisol on its own. Cushing Syndrome affects less than 20,000 new patients in the U.S. each year, which means it is considered a rare condition.


excess cortisol levels

What Causes Cushing Syndrome?

  • Overuse of corticosteroids
  • Adrenal gland abnormalities or tumors
  • Pituitary gland tumors
  • Familial Cushing’s syndrome
  • Ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) releasing lung or thyroid tumors
  • Excessive stress
  • Athletic training
  • Malnutrition
  • Alcohol abuse

Types of Cushing Syndrome

Endogenous Cushing Syndrome

Endogenous Cushing’s Syndrome is the result of an abnormality in the body’s cortisol production, which causes the over-production of cortisol.

Pseudo-Cushing Syndrome

Pseudo-Cushing’s Syndrome is the result of using medications containing a mixture of estrogen and progesterone, typically oral contraceptives.

Symptoms of Cushing Syndrome

  • Weight gain
  • Increased fatty deposits between the shoulders and the upper back (buffalo hump)
  • Fatty deposits in the face resulting in moon face
  • Purple or pink stretch marks on the breasts, arms, abdomen, and thighs
  • Thinning, fragile skin
  • Slow healing injuries
  • Acne
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Bone loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Frequent infections
  • Extra facial and body hair in women
  • Irregular periods
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Loss of sexual interest or infertility in men
  • Slower rate of growth in children

excess cortisol signs

Diagnosing Cushing Syndrome

A primary care physician can diagnose Cushing Syndrome with a physical examination and series of diagnostic testing. This includes blood panels and a urinalysis to assess cortisol levels. Certain diagnostic imaging can also reveal pituitary tumors or adrenal gland tumors, which can causes Cushing’s Syndrome.

Treating Cushing Syndrome

Medications that limit cortisol production are the most common method of treatment for Cushing Syndrome. Cushing’s that is caused by a pituitary or adrenal gland tumor may be resolved if the tumor is shrunk or removed.

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