Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Stress Hormone Cortisol

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We have seen from many other articles that I have published on this site that severe and protracted childhood trauma can greatly impair our ability to control our stress levels as adults (meaning we are more adversely affected by stress than the average person, both in terms of our physical and mental health).

Cortisol is a primary stress hormone that helps us to control our mood, levels of fear and our levels of motivation. It is produced by the adrenal glands. The body increases its level of cortisol production when we are in a highly stressful situation. The functions of cortisol include the following:

  • helps control our blood pressure
  • increases blood glucose levels thus aiding the ‘fight/flight’ response
  • helps us to cope with stress by increasing our energy levels
  • plays an important role in our sleep/wake patterns
  • helps the body to return to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event
  • reduces bodily inflammation
  • manages respiration
  • increases muscle tension
  • regulation of digestive, reproductive and immune systems
  • growth whilst growing up
  • balances salt in the body
  • converts food to energy

The amount of cortisol in the blood at any one time is controlled by the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Cortisol Levels?

If a stressful event is short-lived and not too severe, the level of cortisol the body produces should settle down once the event is over (e.g. after a minor road accident) bringing the body back into a state of comfortable equilibrium (e.g. the heart rate and blood pressure both return to normal levels).

However, a severely traumatic childhood can involve feeling highly stressed and frightened for very extended periods of time, by which I mean years, with limited respite. This, unsurprisingly, overloads the body’s ability to control stressful reactions in a normal way and alters our physiological stress response. In terms of cortisol production and how the body makes use of it, the process, under such conditions, can become seriously disrupted and dysfunctional.

This can give rise to a large range of conditions, both physical and mental. These may include:

  • increased weight
  • problems concentrating
  • anxiety
  • heart disease
  • headaches
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • insomnia
  • depression

An excess of cortisol in the blood can also lead to Cushing’s syndrome, symptoms of which include: increased weight, blood clots, bruises, weak muscles, depression, heart attacks, high blood pressure, broken bones, infections and type 2 diabetes. However, according to the National Centre For Health Research, there is so far no evidence that stress causes Cushing’s syndrome either directly or indirectly. Instead, its causes include the use of glucocorticoid medications, pituitary tumours, adrenal cortical tumours and lung, thyroid and thymus tumours.

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On the other hand, too little cortisol in the blood can lead to a condition known as Addison’s. This includes the following symptoms: weak muscles, low mood, increased level of thirst, loss of appetite and weight loss (NOT as a result of dieting), low levels of motivation, lack of energy and fatigue.

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  • To learn more about Addison’s, including treatments, click here for the relevant NHS page.
  • To learn more about Cushing’s disease, including treatments, click here to visit the relevant NHS page.


The theory of ‘adrenal fatigue’ (Wilson, 1998). According to Wilson, ‘adrenal fatigue’ refers to various symptoms caused by the adrenal glands failing to function correctly and can develop as a result of prolonged, intense exposure to stress. Symptoms include sleep-related problems such as difficulty falling asleep and/or frequent waking during the night, sugar and salt cravings, and fatigue. However, such symptoms are non-specific and frequently occur in relation to many conditions and the theory of adrenal fatigue remains controversial. However, Wilson contests that the syndrome comes about by chronic, severe stress over-activating the adrenal glands (which release cortisol and adrenaline) as part of the fight/flight response) which, in the long-term, causes them to overproduce cortisol and eventually ‘burn out.’


Help for Adrenal Fatigue | Self Hypnosis Downloads


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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