Everything You Wanted to Know About Cortisol Hormone & its Effects on Child Development!

While cortisol is essential for short-term stress response, chronically high levels of the hormone can be harmful to your health and that of your child.

Updated Jan 27, 2024
cortisol and child development

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the two adrenal glands located above the kidneys. It is often called the “stress hormone” because it plays a key role in the body’s fight-or-flight response. When your child, or even you, faces a stressful situation, the adrenal glands release cortisol hormone into the bloodstream.

This hormone helps regulate the stress responses, to make the body adapt to sudden stressful moments. Upon release, it triggers a series of physiological responses that collectively form the “fight or flight” response.

For example, upon encountering a wild animal like a bear while hiking in the woods, the body’s immediate release of cortisol in addition to other stress hormones prepares the body for a rapid response – either to confront the threat (fight) or to quickly escape (flight).

Exactly What Happens During Short-term Adaptations by Cortisol?

Here are some key ways (short-term adaptations) in which cortisol contributes to stress management, to focus on the perceived threat:

  1. Energy Release: Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream, to provide the body with a quick source of energy. This is crucial for responding to a perceived threat.
  2. Heightens alertness and focus: This is a mechanism designed to help the body respond quickly and effectively to a perceived threat.
  3. Increases heart rate and blood pressure: In conjunction with other stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol contributes to the increase in heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.
  4. Suppresses non-essential functions like digestion and reproduction: As a part of the “fight or flight” response, cortisol helps redirect energy and resources to functions that are essential for dealing with the new threat.
  5. Metabolism Regulation: Cortisol plays a role in regulating metabolism, by helping to increase the availability of substances that support energy production and storage.
  6. Immune System Modulation: While cortisol suppresses certain aspects of the immune system, it enhances others to prioritize resources for the immediate stress response.
  7. Emotional Regulation: Cortisol interacts with brain regions involved in emotional processing, influencing mood and helping to regulate emotional responses to stress.
  8. Anti-inflammatory Effects: Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial in the short term to reduce inflammation caused by injuries or stress. However, chronic elevation of cortisol can have negative effects on the immune system and overall health.
  9. Memory Formation: Cortisol can impact memory formation, particularly in stressful situations. It helps prioritize memories related to the stressful event, enhancing the ability to remember and learn from such experiences.

The Bad Side of Cortisol Hormone!

cortisol and chronic stress
Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

While cortisol is essential for short-term stress response, chronically high levels of the hormone can be harmful to your health and that of your child. High levels of the hormone can be an indicator of chronic stress, which can have detrimental effects on their physical and mental health.

It can lead to a variety of  symptoms and problems, including:

Besides, elevated levels of cortisol can be indicative of Cushing’s syndrome:

Cushing’s syndrome is a hormonal condition that occurs when a person’s cortisol levels are too high. It can have severe and wide-ranging effects on the body.

MedicalNewsToday

Cushing’s syndrome is usually caused by using medications that lead to high levels of cortisol in the body i.e. glucocorticoids. Sometimes it may arise due to cancerous tumors!

If you notice any of these signs in your child, it is important to see a doctor soon enough. They will be able to do a blood or saliva test to measure cortisol levels. If the test results show that your child’s cortisol levels are high, the doctor will likely recommend treatment to address the underlying cause of the problem.

The Long-term Effects of High Cortisol Levels in Children

cortisol and body weight

Chronic exposure to elevated cortisol hormone can have various long-term effects on the physical and mental health of your child. These effects can manifest in different ways, depending on the severity and duration of the stress that triggers high cortisol production.

Here’s an overview of some potential consequences:

1. Physical Health:

Growth and development: High cortisol can disrupt growth hormone production, leading to stunted growth, delayed puberty, and weakened bones.

Metabolic problems: Chronically high cortisol can contribute to weight gain, especially around the abdomen and face, and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol imbalances.

Weakened immune system: Cortisol suppresses the immune system, making children more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

Headaches and digestive issues: Chronic stress can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive problems.

2. Mental Health:

Behavioral and emotional problems: Children with high cortisol levels may exhibit anxiety, depression, irritability, hyperactivity, and difficulty concentrating. They may also be more prone to behavioral problems like aggression, impulsivity, and withdrawal.

Cognitive development: Chronic stress can negatively impact brain development, leading to learning difficulties, memory problems, and attention deficits.

Increased risk of mental health disorders: Children with prolonged exposure to high cortisol are at higher risk of developing mental health disorders like anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life.

3. Social and Emotional Development:

Difficulties with relationships: Children with high cortisol levels may struggle to build and maintain healthy relationships with family and friends due to emotional dysregulation and challenges with communication.

Poor self-esteem: Chronic stress can contribute to low self-esteem and negative self-image, further impacting emotional well-being.

Academic difficulties: Stress can hinder concentration and learning, leading to academic struggles and decreased motivation.

What is the Right Amount of Cortisol Hormone Levels in Your Child?

striking the right balance of cortisol hormone
Photo by Mateusz Dach (Pexels)

Unfortunately, there’s no single “right” amount of cortisol for all children. Determining appropriate levels involves several factors, including:

  • Age: Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout childhood. Typically, they are highest in newborns and gradually decrease through adolescence.
  • Time of day: Cortisol follows a daily cycle, peaking shortly after waking and gradually declining throughout the day.
  • Stress levels: Cortisol rises in response to stress, so even within a day, levels can vary significantly depending on individual experience.
  • Underlying health conditions: Some medical conditions can affect cortisol production, making it essential to consider the child’s overall health picture.

Therefore, a doctor would assess cortisol levels in the context of these factors rather than focusing on a single universal value. They may order blood or saliva tests at specific times (usually morning) to get a complete picture.

Here’s a general reference range for cortisol levels in adults and children, measured in mcg/dL:

Adults:

8 AM to noon:  5-25 mcg/dL (138-690 nmol/L)

8 PM to 8 AM:  0-10 mcg/dL (0-276 nmol/L)* (PDR)

Adult/elderly:

8 AM:  5-23 mcg/dL (138-635 nmol/L)

4 PM:  3-13 mcg/dL (83-359 nmol/L)

Child: 1-16 years:

8 AM:  3-21 mcg/dL

4 PM:  3-10 mcg/dL

Newborn:  1-24 mcg/dL

However, remember, these are just broad guidelines and shouldn’t be used for self-diagnosis.

If you are concerned about your child’s cortisol levels, consult a pediatrician. They can interpret the results within your child’s specific context and recommend further investigations or interventions if necessary.

What Factors at Home Can Trigger High Levels of Cortisol Hormone?

parental anger can trigger high levels of cortisol hormone

High cortisol hormone levels can be an indicator of chronic stress, which can have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of your child. Understanding the conditions and environments that contribute to elevated cortisol in children can help parents create a more supportive and stress-reducing home environment.

Here are some key factors that can lead to high cortisol hormone levels in children:

1. Parenting Practices:

  • Harsh or punitive parenting: Frequent yelling, physical punishment, and overly critical behavior can trigger the fight-or-flight response in children, leading to cortisol spikes.
  • Inconsistent parenting: Unpredictable discipline and unclear expectations can create a stressful environment for children, disrupting their sense of security and control.
  • Emotionally neglectful parenting: A lack of warmth, responsiveness, and affection can make children feel unsupported and insecure, impacting their stress response.
  • Micromanaging: Oversupervising and controlling children’s every move can limit their autonomy and increase their anxiety, which can elevate cortisol levels.

2. Family and School Environment:

  • Frequent family conflict: Ongoing arguments, tension, and hostility within the family can be a major source of stress for children and contribute to chronic cortisol dysregulation.
  • Financial instability: Worrying about money, housing, or basic needs can be a significant stressor for children, negatively impacting their cortisol levels.
  • Loss or trauma: Experiencing the death of a loved one, natural disasters, or other traumatic events can trigger high cortisol levels and have long-lasting effects on children’s stress response systems.
  • Exposure to violenceWitnessing or experiencing violence, bullying, academic pressure, in the home, community, or school can be incredibly stressful for children and lead to elevated cortisol levels.

3. Individual Factors:

  • Temperament: Children with more reactive temperaments may be naturally more prone to experiencing stress and having higher cortisol levels.
  • Underlying health conditionsCertain medical conditions can also affect cortisol levels. So, it is important to consult with a paediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s stress response.

How Best Can You Mitigate the Negative Effects of Cortisol Hormone?

effects of cortisol on your child
Photo by Kampus Production (Pexels)

Mitigating the negative effects of high cortisol hormone in your child involves a holistic approach that addresses both physical and emotional well-being

Helping children manage high cortisol levels involves building a supportive environment and adopting healthy coping mechanisms, always in collaboration with a healthcare professional.

Parental burnout, a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, is closely tied to cortisol levels. Recognizing the signs and implementing preventive measures can protect parents from burnout, ensuring a more fulfilling parenting journey.

Here are some safe and effective ways to approach this:

1. Create a Safe and Supportive Environment:

  • Warmth and Consistency: Provide unconditional love, positive reinforcement, and routines that offer structure and predictability. This can reduce anxiety and create a secure base for children to navigate stress.
  • Open Communication: Encourage open communication and active listening. Create a safe space for children to express their feelings without judgment, fostering trust and understanding.
  • Reducing Stressors: Identify and address potential stressors in their environment, such as academic pressure, family conflicts, or bullying. Advocate for solutions and provide necessary support to minimize these stressors.
  • Positive Relationships: Nurture positive relationships with family members, friends, and teachers. Strong social connections offer emotional support and a sense of belonging, which can buffer stress.

2. Build Healthy Coping Mechanisms:

  • Physical Activity: Encourage regular physical activity through age-appropriate games, sports, or outdoor play. Exercise releases endorphins, natural mood boosters that counteract the negative effects of cortisol.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Teach children relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. These practices help regulate the nervous system and promote calmness.
  • Creative Expression: Allow children to express themselves creatively through art, music, writing, or any other enjoyable activity. Creative outlets can be cathartic and help manage stress in a healthy way.
  • Healthy Sleep Habits: Prioritize good sleep hygiene by establishing regular sleep schedules and creating a calming bedtime routine. Adequate sleep is crucial for regulating cortisol levels and overall well-being.

Remember, every child is unique, and their needs may vary. Consulting a pediatrician or child therapist can provide personalized guidance and support to address the specific causes and best approaches for managing high cortisol levels in your child. They can also rule out any underlying medical conditions that might be contributing to the issue.


A. How does cortisol affect parental decision-making?

Cortisol can impact decision-making by influencing the brain’s prefrontal cortex, potentially leading to impulsive choices. Developing mindfulness and stress-reducing practices can mitigate these effects.

B. Can cortisol levels in parents impact a child’s development?

Yes, elevated cortisol levels in parents can affect a child’s emotional and behavioral development. Creating a supportive and low-stress environment is crucial for positive child development.

C. Are there specific foods that help regulate cortisol levels in parents?

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and vitamin C can help regulate cortisol levels. Incorporating a balanced and nutritious diet is beneficial for overall well-being.

D. What role does exercise play in managing cortisol for parents?

Regular exercise is a natural cortisol regulator. Engaging in physical activity helps reduce stress and promotes the release of endorphins, contributing to improved mood and cortisol balance.

E. How can parents create a cortisol-friendly environment at home?

Establishing routines, practicing open communication, and prioritizing self-care contribute to a cortisol-friendly home environment. Creating a supportive network and sharing responsibilities also play a crucial role.

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