Cortisol and Depression


Depression is a common mood disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is often characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest in daily activities. While the exact causes of depression are not well understood, it is believed that a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors contribute to its development. Recently, researchers have also begun exploring the role of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, in depression.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It is often referred to as the “stress hormone” as it is released in larger quantities during times of physical or psychological stress. Cortisol plays an important role in the body’s response to stress by increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

How Does Cortisol Affect the Brain?

Cortisol can affect the brain in several ways. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to receptors in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, which are areas of the brain involved in regulating mood, emotions, and behavior.

Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day. However, in individuals with depression, cortisol levels may be elevated or disrupted. This can lead to changes in brain structure and function, as well as alterations in neurotransmitter systems that regulate mood, such as serotonin and dopamine.

Cortisol and Depression

Studies have shown that individuals with depression often have elevated cortisol levels, particularly in the evening and at night. This suggests that dysregulation of the stress response system may contribute to the development or maintenance of depression.

Furthermore, chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels have been linked to structural changes in the brain, including reduced hippocampal volume and changes in white matter tracts. These changes may contribute to the symptoms of depression, such as impairments in memory and concentration.

Treatment Implications

Understanding the role of cortisol in depression may have important implications for treatment. Some antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), work by modulating cortisol levels and the stress response system.

Other interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and exercise, have also been shown to reduce cortisol levels and improve symptoms of depression.

However, it is important to note that not all individuals with depression have elevated cortisol levels. In fact, some individuals may have lower cortisol levels, particularly those with psychotic depression or melancholic features. Therefore, cortisol testing is not routinely recommended for the diagnosis of depression.


While the exact role of cortisol in depression is still being studied, it is clear that dysregulation of the stress response system may contribute to its development and maintenance. Understanding the complex interactions between cortisol, brain function, and mood regulation may lead to more targeted and effective treatments for depression.

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek professional help from a qualified healthcare provider. Treatment options may include a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. With proper treatment and support, depression can be managed and overcome.


What is cortisol and how does it relate to depression?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that regulates stress response. Chronic stress can result in high cortisol levels, which have been linked to depression. Elevated cortisol levels can also cause anxiety, irritability, and sleep disturbances, all of which are symptoms of depression.

Can lowering cortisol levels improve depression?

Lowering cortisol levels has been found to be beneficial in treating depression. Antidepressant medications and psychotherapy can help reduce cortisol levels, and lifestyle changes such as exercise, healthy diet, and stress management techniques like yoga and meditation have also been shown to decrease cortisol levels.

What are some natural ways to lower cortisol levels?

Some natural ways to lower cortisol levels include regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation, and spending time in nature. These activities can help lower stress levels and reduce cortisol production, which may improve symptoms of depression.


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