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

While cortisol is essential in stress response for you and your child, chronically high levels of the hormone can contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure, digestive issues, headaches, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.

your child and cortisol hormone

Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone also called “stress hormone“, because it helps you and your child respond efficiently to stressful situations. It is produced by the adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys.

What happens is that the hormone, together with adrenaline, helps to

  • stimulate production of glucose,
  • increase heart rate,
  • elevate blood pressure,
  • suppress inflammation and the immune response,
  • and sharpen the senses, all of which are essential for survival.

This hormonal response is designed to help the human body react swiftly to imminent physical danger or psychological stress.

Of note, however, cortisol also has long-term effects on the body. Sustained high levels of cortisol translates to sustained glucose production, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, etc! These translate to a whole range of health problems over time.

Therefore, understanding how the hormone functions in the body and how to manage its levels is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being.

Why is Cortisol a Stress Hormone?

When a person faces sudden stressful situations, the adrenal glands release cortisol hormone in addition to adrenaline, into the bloodstream. Actually, adrenaline, also released by neurons in the medulla oblongata, takes center stage in the immediate response to stress. It is a quick-acting hormone released within seconds of encountering stressful moments.

This rush equips the body with a heightened state of alertness and physical capabilities to deal with the perceived danger, causing the stress.

For example, upon encountering a wild animal like a bear while hiking in the woods, the following steps explain the hormonal responses.

  1. Encounter with the Bear: You see a bear in the woods, triggering the hypothalamus (part of your brain) to perceive danger.
  2. Hormonal Surge: The hypothalamus in the brain sends signals to your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.
  3. Adrenaline Rush: The adrenal medulla (inner layer of adrenal glands) releases a burst of adrenaline hormone within seconds. This gives you an immediate boost of energy – increased heart rate, blood pressure, and stronger muscle contractions.
  4. Cortisol Joins the Party: While adrenaline is the initial jolt, the adrenal cortex (outer layer of adrenal glands) starts releasing cortisol. It takes minutes for cortisol to FULLY rise to the occasion. While it may seem to take the backseat at the beginning, its effects are more sustained.
  5. Fight or Flight: Fueled by adrenaline and cortisol, your body prepares for action. The increased blood sugar provides readily available energy, while hormones help mobilize stored fats and proteins for additional fuel. Your heightened senses and stronger muscles allow you to either confront the bear (fight) or flee the scene (flight).
  6. After the Rush: A while later when the bear is no longer a threat, cortisol levels start to return to normal. Your body calms down, and other systems like digestion, which were put on hold, resume their normal functions.

In brief …

Adrenaline: This is the surge you feel immediately. Your heart races, breathing increases, and you get a burst of energy to run away (fight) or climb a tree (flight). Cortisol: This is your body’s “stay alert” hormone. It kicks in after the initial adrenaline ‘rush ‘shot’ and helps you manage the situation. It helps your body stay alert for potential danger while providing the energy to cope with the situation, like finding shelter or planning your next move.

The two work together as a team to help the body survive stressful encounters.

The Major Functions of Cortisol:

Despite its association with stress, cortisol is a multifunctional hormone that plays diverse roles in the body,

  • Management of Stress: As illustrated above, cortisol is a key player in the body’s response to stress. When you experience stress, cortisol levels rise, giving you a surge of energy to handle the situation.
  • Regulation of Blood Sugar: Cortisol helps increase blood sugar (glucose) levels by stimulating the liver to release stored glucose and promoting the conversion of proteins and fats into glucose. This provides readily available energy during stressful times.
  • Modulation of Immune System: Cortisol helps dampen the immune system’s inflammatory response. While this can be helpful in the short term to conserve resources for immediate needs, chronically high cortisol levels can weaken the immune system.
  • Metabolism Control: Cortisol influences how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It can promote the breakdown of muscle tissue and fat stores for energy during stress.
  • Maintenance of Blood Pressure: Cortisol influences blood pressure regulation by enhancing the action of vasoconstrictors, which narrow blood vessels, thereby increasing blood pressure. This is particularly important during stressful situations when the body needs to redirect blood flow to vital organs and tissues to support the stress response.
  • Management of Sleep-wake Cycle: Cortisol has a natural rhythm, following a circadian cycle. Levels are highest in the morning to help you wake up and gradually decrease throughout the day. It promotes relaxation during the day, and prepares the body for sleep at night. Early in the night it is replaced by melatonin, hormone of darkness“, because its production is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. Melatonin helps signal to the body that it is time to sleep, promoting relaxation and drowsiness.

Maintaining a Balance of Cortisol Hormone in Your Child is Key

cortisol hormone and stress
Photo by Pixabay

While cortisol is vital for maintaining homeostasis and coping with stress, dysregulation of its levels can lead to various health issues.

  • Too much cortisol: Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which can contribute to weight gain, digestive issues, high blood pressure, headaches, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Too little cortisol: Can lead to fatigue, weakness, weight loss, and difficulty regulating blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).

What it Means to Have High Levels of Cortisol:

When good cortisol turns to bad cortisol:

  1. Increased blood sugar levels: High and persistent cortisol levels can lead to elevated blood sugar levels as the pancreas struggles to keep up with the demand for insulin. This can result in cells not receiving the energy they need, leading to fatigue and reduced performance.
  2. Weight gain: Persistent cortisol levels can trigger false hunger signals, leading to cravings for high-calorie foods and overeating. Unused glucose is stored as body fat, contributing to weight gain.
  3. Suppressed immune system: Prolonged high cortisol levels can suppress the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds, contagious illnesses, and raising the risk of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and food allergies.
  4. Digestive problems: High-stress levels can impair digestion as the body prioritizes the stress response over less critical functions like digestion. This can lead to digestive issues such as ulcers, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
  5. Heart disease: Continuos cortisol levels can constrict arteries, raise blood pressure, and contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Early Signs of High Levels of Cortisol

Early signs of high cortisol levels can be subtle and easily mistaken for everyday stresses. Here’s what to watch out for in both children and adults:

Physical Signs:

  • Fatigue: This can be a pervasive tiredness that lingers even after getting enough sleep.
  • Changes in Weight: Unexplained weight gain, particularly around the belly and upper back (sometimes called “buffalo hump“), is a common indicator.
  • Sleep Issues: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling unrested can be early signs.
  • Headaches: Frequent headaches can be a signal of elevated cortisol.
  • Skin Problems: Acne breakouts, thinning skin, and easy bruising can occur.

Behavioral Signs:

  • Anxiety and Irritability: Feeling on edge, easily frustrated, or experiencing mood swings can be early signs.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Cortisol can cloud your thinking and make it hard to focus on tasks.
  • Decreased Libido: Both men and women can experience a decline in sex drive.
  • Changes in Appetite: Some people may lose their appetite, while others crave sugary or fatty foods.

Other effects and signs of bad levels of cortisol:

  • Thin arms and legs
  • Stretch marks
  • Mood swings
  • Weak bones
  • Increased risk of infections

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 Low & High Cortisol Levels:

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

Here is 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: Prolonged levels of cortisol suppress 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.

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.


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!

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

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.

According to ebmconsult, here is a general reference range for cortisol levels in adults and children, measured in mcg/dL:


  • 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)


  • 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


  • 1-24 mcg/dL

Remember, these are just broad guidelines and should not 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 in Your Child?

parental anger can trigger high levels of cortisol hormone
Angry response can trigger the release of cortisol hormone in your child.

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 your child:

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 in Your Child?

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 hormone 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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