Does Cortisol Affect Depression?

The Relationship Between Stress and Depression

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When the body is under stress, the adrenal gland increases secretion of a hormone called cortisol. Short-term, this hormone can help aid in survival, for example by mobilizing energy reserves. Long-term elevation of cortisol, however, can have detrimental effects.

Cortisol Levels Are Higher in Depressed People

It is known that in normal people the level of cortisol in the bloodstream peaks in the morning, then decreases as the day progresses.

In depressed people, however, cortisol peaks earlier in the morning and does not level off or decrease in the afternoon or evening. Although the exact mechanism that causes depression is uncertain, clinical studies suggest that chronically elevated cortisol may induce clinical depression by somehow affecting the way serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences mood, is transmitted.

How Stress Affects the Brain

When we are under stress, our brains tell our bodies to start putting out stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, to try to cope. While these stress hormones can be helpful in moderation, having them operating throughout the day for most of the day because of ongoing stress is exhausting and may cause the neurotransmitters in our brains, like serotonin, to stop functioning correctly, potentially sending us into depression.

Natural Ways to Increase Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that appears to influence mood, appetite and sleep, among other things.

There are some natural ways that may boost your serotonin levels beyond just antidepressants.These include:

  • Exercise. While it has been clearly demonstrated that physical exercise boosts mood, many studies have also shown that it increases serotonin levels in the brain.​
  • Sleeping well. Getting enough sleep and keeping a regular sleep pattern also helps stave off depression and improves mood.​
  • Light exposure. Sunlight is preferable, but especially in winter months, even getting light by way of a therapy light can help. ​
  • Watch the caffeine. Caffeine may lower serotonin levels, so consider decreasing or even stopping your intake. 

​​Ways to Reduce Stress

In addition to boosting serotonin, reducing your stress can help mellow out the effects of depression. Here are some good ways to reduce your stress:

  • Meditation. Using meditation has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost mood and even help physical ailments like headaches.​
  • Relaxation. Make sure you take some time every day, even if it's just a few minutes, to completely relax your body and your mind.​
  • Take your pet for a walk. As noted above, exercise is good for your mood and helps you feel good about yourself, plus interacting with your beloved pet will also help you relax.​
  • Get a massage. Massage has proven benefits to relieve stress, anxiety and tension.​
  • Indulge in some art therapy. Coloring, painting, drawing, photography...whatever your pick, engaging your inner artist can help drive away stress.​
  • Keep a journal. Giving yourself a place to let it all out can be not only freeing, but help you deal with stress you may not have even realized you had.​
  • Do something you love every day. Even if it's just for ten minutes, being able to read the next chapter of that novel you're absorbed in or playing your guitar will help you blow off some steam.


Heina, A., et. al. "Relationship between cortisol and serotonin metabolites and transporters in alcoholism (correction of alcoholism)." Pharmacopsychiatry 35.4 (2002):127-34.

Tafet, G.E., et. al. "Correlation between cortisol level and serotonin uptake in patients with chronic stress and depression." Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 1.4 (2001) :388-393(6).

Woolston, C. "Depression and Stress." HealthDay (2016).

Young, S.N. "How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs." Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32 (6), 2007.

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