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High Cortisol & Fatty Liver

By Jonathan McLelland ; Updated August 14, 2017

Cortisol is an essential hormone produced by your adrenal glands, and it is primarily responsible for regulating how your body reacts to moments of internal or external stress. Because of this, cortisol is commonly referred to as the stress hormone. Fatty liver is the accumulation of excess fat in liver cells, and while fatty liver can be normal, a natural occurrence in some, it can be caused by alcoholism, diabetes mellitus or extreme weight gain. Preliminary research has found a link between high cortisol and severe cases of fatty liver.

Cortisol and Fatty Liver Connection

A study published in the February 2006 issue of “Clinical Endocrinology” found a direct connection between cortisol levels in men and fatty liver disease. In the research study, scientists found nonalcoholic fatty liver disease patients had chronic overactivity in the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, which leads to a subclinical version of Cushing syndrome, the overproduction of cortisol. Researchers think that excessive cortisol leads to the formation of fatty liver, as this hormone is known to promote fat deposits in the liver.

Elevated Cortisol Levels

Increased cortisol levels can be caused by excessive physical or psychological stress or a disease known as Cushing syndrome. Cushing syndrome, or hypercortisolism, occurs when your body is exposed to abnormally high levels of cortisol. This condition can be caused by corticosteroid medications, physical conditions such as adrenal gland tumors or when your pituitary gland secretes excessive ACTH hormone. This hormone then triggers the production of cortisol in excessive amounts.

Effects of Lowered Cortisol

Because high levels of cortisol are linked to the development of fat deposits in liver cells, if cortisol levels are lowered, scientists believe the formation of fatty liver will diminish. Researchers at the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres found that when the cortisol receptor was turned off in mice, the triglyceride levels in mice livers were significantly reduced. Upon further investigation, researchers found that in the absence of cortisol HES1 protein levels were increased, which enhances the production of an enzyme responsible for breaking down fats in the liver, resulting in a reduction of liver fat accumulation.

Naturally Reducing Cortisol

If your high cortisol levels are caused by a medical condition or medication, discuss lowering your cortisol levels with your physician. If elevated cortisol levels are caused by physical or emotional stress, you can take steps to naturally reduce this hormone. The University of New Mexico reports that aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise has proved to lower stress levels. By lowering stress, your body will naturally produce less cortisol. Other forms of effective stress management include medication, breathing exercises and visualization. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that several studies show massage therapy effectively reduced overall cortisol levels while increasing dopamine and serotonin levels.

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