Abnormal Cortisol Levels, Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD Are Signs of Long-Term Abuse and Psychological Trauma

Long-term emotional stress is a well-known culprit in the development of abnormal cortisol levels and consequent damage to the endocrine system of hormone-releasing organs throughout the body, most notably the adrenal glands that produce cortisol itself. Most of the research on this common health problem has been conducted in adults, but it turns out that abused children experience many of the same health effects seen in stressed out adults. Furthermore, studies are showing that chronic abuse can disrupt the balance of the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis for many years or decades.

Child Abuse Triggers Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Researcher Kate Harkness looked at the relationship between cortisol levels and abuse and mental illness in children and found a strong connection. She believes that the high stress levels experienced in many children who are being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused drive up cortisol dramatically. Over time, the high levels of cortisol damage the brain in regions such as the hippocampus and hypothalamus. Chronically elevated cortisol also damages the endocrine system consisting of hormone releasing organs such as the adrenal and pituitary glands. Abnormal levels of cortisol have also been linked as a factor contributing to the development of many other health problems involving metabolic disorders such as diabetes, high levels of blood lipids, and low CoQ10 levels.

From Biological Links Found Between Childhood Abuse and Adolescent Depression:

“This kind of reaction is a problem because cortisol kills cells in areas of the brain that control memory and emotion regulation,” explains Dr. Harkness, a professor in the Department of Psychology and an expert in the role of stress and trauma in adolescent depression. “Over time cortisol levels can build up and increase a person’s risk for more severe endocrine impairment and more severe depression.”

Researchers analyzed measurements of urinary cortisol levels and collecting profiles of the children’s past histories of absence or presence of abuse and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety spectrum disorders such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They noted that children displaying mild depression symptoms triggered by abuse often have elevated cortisol levels. But those who are severely depressed have often had their endocrine systems collapse and that typically results in low levels of hormones such as cortisol.

Symptoms of depression are usually more than just a low mood. They often include problems with focus and memory, weight changes, sleep and fatigue problems, loss of interest in formally interesting activities, withdrawal from social groups, and chronic pain. Depressive symptoms are often accompanied by high levels of anxiety from frequent worries or a pervasive sense of unease or discomfort all the way up to panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks.

Child Abuse Connected with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

The observations of altered hormone levels in abused children is similar to the physiological phenomenon seen with patients suffering long-term pain and fatigue conditions such as fibromyalgia and CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome). These people often have pervasive endocrine system damage and low cortisol levels, too.

People who are suffering from chronic pain and fatigue disorders such as fibromyalgia and CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) should look back into their histories to evaluate whether some long-ago psychological trauma may still be impacting them severely today. Counseling or psychotherapy directed at resolving the psychological damage may be helpful in recovering from chronic pain and fatigue.

These conditions are not “all in the head” — there is real physiological damage to the body that is objectively seen via medical tests such as cortisol saliva tests and hormone blood tests. It’s important to realize that many such patients will need far more than just counseling. In particular, many of them need hormonal support for cortisol, pregnenolone, and DHEA via supplements and medications.

Normal Changes in Cortisol Levels Are Short-Term

Cortisol in and of itself is not a damaging hormone. Indeed, it’s normal for there to be short-term elevations in cortisol levels such as during an emergency or as a reaction to the impending birth of a baby or the adaptation to taking care of that baby.

From The Making of a Modern Dad:

The second hormone, cortisol, is well known as a stress hormone, but it is also a good indicator of a mother’s attachment to her baby. New mothers who have high cortisol levels can detect their own infant by odor more easily than mothers with lower cortisol levels. The mothers also respond more sympathetically to their baby’s cries and describe their relationship with their baby in more positive terms. Storey and her colleagues found that for expectant fathers, cortisol was twice as high in the three weeks before birth than earlier in the pregnancy.

Cortisol essentially sends a message to the body to prepare itself for stressful operations and to temporarily shut down or slow down some of the long-term repair mechanisms the body uses to keep itself healthy. The basic reasoning is that if you’re being chased by a lion intent on eating you, you would be better off with your body focusing on running away or fighting than on repairing buildup of plaque inside your arteries. If your cortisol levels spike under dangerous or stressful situations now and then and then fall back to normal levels within a few hours or days, probably there is no lasting damage from that. But when you are chronically stressed and cortisol is high all the time, eventually your body will be damaged in many areas because the normal healthy repair mechanisms slow or shut down.

Eventually, the damage may become so severe that the endocrine system organs responsible for making cortisol that the body simply can’t make much of it any more. The effect is most obvious in the adrenal glands that are making the cortisol, but the hypothalamus and pituitary also have much influence over the production of cortisol and appear to be damaged by long-term high levels of cortisol. So via some mix of damage to these organs, eventually the body isn’t able to muster the burst in cortisol you’d typically see from routine stressors such as waking up for the day or to deal with some pain or injury. As a result, you get aggravated symptoms of chronic fatigue and pain seen in many chronic medical conditions such as adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, and CFS. Some elements of this dysfunction may also be involved in other chronic pain and weakness conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Using Pregnenolone, DHEA, and IsoCort or Other Cortisol Supplements


Low levels of pregnenolone, DHEA, and sometimes cortisol are common in people who have experienced chronic stress or abuse. Supplementing DHEA and pregnenolone is quite safe under most circumstances, the main possible exception being patients who are suffering from hormone-dependent cancers. One of the benefits of pregnenolone supplementation is that the body can convert pregnenolone to cortisol or to DHEA as needed. DHEA is needed for production of testosterone and testosterone is needed to make estradiol, one of the most common forms of estrogen.

Pregnenolone and DHEA are particularly helpful for people suffering from anxiety which is very common in those suffering from a history of abuse or stress. You can read more about that in Reducing Sedative and Addictive Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Drugs Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.) with L-Theanine, Pregnenolone, and DHEA.

Cortisol supplementation is a more difficult area to address because it’s important to have an accurate picture of your daily varying levels of cortisol before you try to alter your cortisol levels. High and low cortisol levels both cause some similar symptoms and both can damage the body. So while you can get over-the-counter bioidentical cortisol via supplements such as IsoCort, it’s really important to get the proper tests to figure out where your cortisol levels are before supplementing with cortisol directly.

DHEA supplementation can also help boost low levels of testosterone seen in many people. But some men may still not be able to normalize their testosterone levels to those of the young and healthy because most of their testosterone is being converted to estradiol estrogen. They may need additional bioidentical testosterone or supplements or medications that impede this conversion. Particularly for older men who are overweight, some additional caution is needed regarding hormone supplementation because many of these men are suffering from very high estrogen levels because the fat in their bodies converts much of their testosterone to estradiol via activity of the enzyme aromatase.

It’s important to get a complete picture of your hormone status both before and during supplementation so you can understand if you may need additional supplements or medications to keep the added hormones in their most useful state. Otherwise, some men may find they inadvertently end up boosting their unhealthy estrogen levels even further when this could have been prevented if the appropriate supplements and medications were used along with the added pregnenolone and DHEA.

Related Articles

Additional Reading

Cortisol reactivity to social stress in adolescents: role of depression severity and child maltreatment

Cortisol response to stress in female youths exposed to childhood maltreatment: results of the youth mood project

Childhood maltreatment and diurnal cortisol patterns in women with chronic pain

The role of childhood abuse in HPA-axis reactivity in Social Anxiety Disorder: a pilot study

Depression and cortisol responses to psychological stress: a meta-analysis

Elevation of Urinary Norepinephrine/Cortisol Ratio in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Child Abuse Victims Have Altered Brains, Study Shows

Child abuse and its effect on brain development

Child abuse may change brain

Biological Links Found Between Childhood Abuse and Adolescent Depression

The Making of a Modern Dad


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned in this post and on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information presented here is for educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice. Please obtain medical advice from qualified healthcare providers.


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Abnormal Cortisol Levels, Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD Are Signs of Long-Term Abuse and Psychological Trauma — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Chronic Stress Kills: High Cortisol Levels Damage the Brain, May Lead to Shorter Life and Neurodegenerative Diseases Such As Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s | EmediaHealth

  2. Pingback: Cortisol Imbalances May Cause Weight Gain, Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia | EmediaHealth

  3. Pingback: Treatment of Depression and Anxiety from High Conflict Divorce and Child Custody Battles Using Antidepressants and Benzodiazipines Is Risky | angiEmedia

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