Health Effects of Stress and Cortisol Levels in Children

Health Effects of Stress and Cortisol Levels in Children

Stress and cortisol levels are normal biological responses. In adults, several studies have explored how chronic stress and high levels of cortisol affect physical and mental health, including the specific impacts on the brain and behavior and overall wellbeing. Other studies have also explored the health effects of stress and cortisol levels in children.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland and released in response to stress and low blood glucose levels to activate anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways, as well as to assist in the conversion of fat, protein, and carbohydrates into energy.

The level of cortisol normally peaks early in the morning but starts to drop in the late morning and reaches a low point at night. Stress and cortisol are a normal part of everyday, healthy biological processes. However, several external factors and environmental situations might be stressing children resulting in high levels of cortisol. Note that cortisol levels are determinants of stress levels. Stress triggers the release of several hormones, including cortisol.

How Stress And Cortisol Levels In Children Affect Their Health

Despite having critical biological functions, several studies have linked stress and high levels of cortisol with several health issues and risks. In children to be specific, numerous studies suggest that high cortisol levels triggered by stressful circumstances can have profound negative effects on physical and mental health.

1. Disrupted Metabolism

One of the probable health effects of high stress and cortisol levels in children is a disruption in their metabolism.

According to researchers Panagiota Pervanidou and George P. Chrousos, chronic stress and high levels of cortisol contribute to the development of several metabolic syndromes. These include abdominal obesity and other risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers Y. Sen et al. found out that blood cortisol was higher in children with metabolic syndrome than without. They concluded that there might be a link between cortisol production and metabolic syndrome in obese children and adolescents.

2. Impaired Stress Response

Another study by Paula L. Ruttle et al. suggested that prolonged or sustained high cortisol levels often lead to biological adaptation as demonstrated by sustained low cortisol levels. This means that the levels of cortisol normalize over time due to prolonged exposure to stress.

Sustained cortisol levels would eventually result in an impaired or inefficient biological response to stress. Remember that the body releases cortisol in response to stress to activate important biological processes.

Ruttle et al. concluded that a disruption in biological responses is another health effect of chronic stress and high cortisol levels in children.

3. Behavioral Problems

Stress and cortisol seem to affect the mental health of children as well. Irregular cortisol production pattern also correlates with behavioral problems in children.

The same study by Ruttle et al. revealed that some children with behavioral or mental problems such as aggression or depression have abnormally high levels of cortisol while others with identical problems have abnormally low levels.

Although this might seem contradicting, the researchers concluded that cortisol levels were abnormally high around the time the behavioral problem emerged but eventually went abnormally low when the problem had been present for a long time.

Ruttle et al. theorized that the body eventually adapts to long-term stress caused by behavioral problems such as aggression or depression.

4. Learning Impairments

Another profound mental health impact of stress and high cortisol levels in children involves learning abilities. A study by Suor et al. showed that children living in low-income households who endure family instability and emotionally distant caregivers are at risk of developing learning difficulties or impaired cognitive abilities due to higher levels of cortisol.

Results of the study of Clancy Blair, Douglas Granger, and Rachel Peters Razza revealed that high cortisol levels in children due to exposure to impoverished household situations correlate with poor readiness for school.

The researchers compared cortisol levels with executive functions. They found out that children with higher cortisol levels have lower executive functions than children with normal cortisol levels.

It is still unclear how cortisol levels affect cognitive abilities. However, Suor et al. mentioned that other studies have hypothesized that elevated cortisol levels can have toxic effects on parts of the brain that are important in cognitive functioning. Low levels of cortisol might hinder the body from recruiting the biological resources needed for optimal cognitive functioning.

Why Consider The Effects Of Stress And Cortisol Levels In Children

Pervanidou and Chrousos explained that children are vulnerable to the negative health effects of chronic stress and high cortisol levels simply because they are still in the developmental stage.

For example, developing brain structures and functions related to stress regulation, such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the mesocorticolimbic system, are more vulnerable to the effects of stress compared to mature structures in adults.

Chronic abnormalities in the pattern of cortisol production in children might affect the timing of puberty, final stature, and body composition.

In addition, although high cortisol levels in children produce behavioral problems, some children might later produce low cortisol levels as part of their coping mechanisms. However, this is also indicative of a blunted response to stress.

An impaired stress response can be harmful because it might affect biological and mental or behavioral responses to certain distressful situations. Ruttle et al. recommended that interventions should begin as soon as behavioral problems appear.


  • Blair, C., Granger, D., and Peters Razza, R. 2005. “Cortisol Reactivity Is Positively Related to Executive Function in Preschool Children Attending Head Start.” Child Development. 76(3): 554-567. DOI: 1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00863.x
  • Pervanidou, P. and Chrousos, G. P. 2012. “Metabolic Consequences of Stress During Childhood and Adolescence.” Metabolism. 61(5): 611-619. DOI: 1016/j.metabol.2011.10.005
  • Ruttle, P. L., Shirtcliff, E. A., Serbin, L. A., Ben-Dat Fisher, D., Stack, D. M., and Schwartzman, A. E. 2011. “Disentangling Psychobiological Mechanisms Underlying Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors in Youth: Longitudinal and Concurrent Associations with Cortisol.” Hormones and Behavior. 59(1): 123-132. DOI: 1016/j.yhbeh.2010.10.015
  • Sen, Y., Aygun, D., Yilmaz, E., and Ayar, A. 2008. “Children and Adolescents with Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome Have High Circulating Cortisol Levels.” Neuro Endocrinology Letters. 29(1): 141-145. PMID: 18283269
  • Suor, J. H., Sturge-Apple, M. L., Davies, P. T., Cicchetti, D., and Manning, L. G. 2015. “Tracing Differential Pathways of Risk: Associations Among Family Adversity, Cortisol, and Cognitive Functioning in Childhood”. Child Development. 86(4): 1142-1158. DOI: 1111/cdev.12376