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Can Elevated Adrenal Hormone (Cortisol) Cause a Heart Attack?


The adrenal glands sitting on top of the kidneys make several hormones critical to life. The central part of the adrenal makes the hormone we refer to as adrenalin, technically from the group known as catecholamines. This is the stress responsive hormone causing rapid heart rate, sweating, increased mental alertness, preparing the body for “fight or flight”. The outer portion of the adrenal makes the hormone cortisol, also known as cortisone. Cortisol maintains, among other things, the blood pressure, fluid and salt balance. Without sufficient cortisol production by the adrenals, life cannot be sustained. What is surprising is that excess cortisol can be as harmful to health as insufficient cortisol.

Deficient cortisol production is referred to as adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease is one form of this), while excess adrenal function is termed Cushing’s Syndrome. During certain types of stress such as severe infection the adrenal gland can produce up to 10 times the normal amount of cortisol. If cortisol levels remain elevated for prolonged periods of time the hormone’s destructive nature is revealed by the break down of soft tissue such as skin and muscle and weakening of the immune system with frequent and aggressive infections occurring sometimes with fatal outcome. Heart disease has not been associated with high cortisol levels until a recent study suggested this possibility.

Researchers from the U.K. examined morning cortisol levels in 1066 men and women with Type 2 diabetes participating in the Edinburgh Type 2 Diabetes Study. A positive relationship was discovered between cortisol levels and the occurrence of heart disease such as heart attack and angina. The higher the cortisol levels were the greater the risk of heart disease. Cortisol levels in diabetics were found to be higher than in non-diabetics, in general. The researchers could not explain why the cortisol levels caused heart disease or why levels were higher in diabetics. (From the April edition of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 95:1602-1608).

‘Adrenal fatigue’ is a recently proposed diagnosis used to explain a variety of general symptoms such as fatigue, moodiness, muscle aches, and diminished mental function. Supposedly, adrenal fatigue results from mild impairment of cortisol production. Practitioners who diagnose “adrenal fatigue” are prescribing synthetic versions of cortisol as treatment. The possibility of heart disease resulting from excess cortisol should be a factor that patients and medical professionals must consider before embarking on adrenal “supplementation” programs.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice or treatment.

Gary Pepper, M.D.
Editor-in-Chief, Metabolism.com

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