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Cortisol and the Link to Mental Health

By HERWriter
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Cortisol is a hormone that most people associate with stress. The adrenal gland produces cortisol, and the hormone helps in different body functions and systems, including stress responses, the immune system, nervous system and circulatory system, according to an article on a National Institutes of Health website. It also helps metabolize fats, protein and carbohydrates.

Cortisol has many functions, but it also affects overall mental health. When a person gets stressed, the body reacts in certain ways. Different hormones are secreted, including cortisol, according to the textbook “Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach.”

However, if cortisol secretions get out of control over time, the hormone can kill nerve cells in a certain area of the brain called the hippocampus. Physical and mental functioning can be harmed in response to chronic stress, and this long-term stress and cortisol secretions can lead to dementia in some cases and the inability to fight off infectious diseases.

Women can be especially affected by stress and high cortisol levels, and more women are thought to have depression, which is also linked to stress and high cortisol levels, according to an article on the Harvard Medical School’s website.

“People suffering from major depression often have high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones,” according to the article. “Women may be especially vulnerable because of interactions among stress hormones, female reproductive hormones, and the mood-regulating neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine.”

Multiple studies have been conducted showing the link between cortisol levels and different mental health issues. A study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior found a link between behavioral issues and low or high cortisol levels.

For children who had aggressive or depressive behavior, the cortisol levels depended on when the symptoms started. For example, if symptoms just started for the problematic behaviors, the cortisol levels would be high, but eventually over time the cortisol levels drop to below normal levels after the body adapts to long periods of stress.

"It seems the body adapts to long-term stress, such as depression, by blunting its normal response," said Lisa Serbin, coauthor of the study and a psychology professor at Concordia University, in a ScienceDaily article.

Genetics can play a role in cortisol levels, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Medicine. Specifically, children who have one or both parents who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder seem to have higher cortisol levels.

“Our study demonstrates that affected children are biologically more sensitive to the experience of stress in their natural and normal environment compared to unaffected peers," said Mark Ellenbogen, senior author of the study, in a ScienceDaily article.

The study suggests that since these children are having more of a reaction to stress, they are also more likely to develop mood disorders.


National Institutes of Health. Cortisol level. Cortisol level: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Web. September 27, 2011. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003693.htm

“Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach” by David H. Barlow and V. Mark Durand. Fifth Edition.

ScienceDaily. Behavioral problems linked to cortisol levels: study finds intervention needed as soon as behavioral problems appear. Web. September 27. 2011.

ScienceDaily. Children of bipolar parents are overly sensitive to stress hormone cortisol, study finds. Web. September 27, 2011. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110505103343.htm

Harvard Mental Health Letter. Women and depression. Women and depression – Harvard Health Publications. Web. September 27, 2011. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Women_and_depression_April06.htm

Reviewed September 28, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.