When you are stressed, your adrenal glands release the steroid hormone cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. The levels of cortisol typically peak in the mornings then gradually decline throughout the day. They are at their lowest before you sleep at night.
For this study, the U.S. researchers used a longitudinal sample of adults followed from birth. They analyzed three models of the effect of stress exposure on daily cortisol: the cumulative model, the biological-embedding model, and the sensitization model.
The cumulative model focuses on cumulative life stress. The biological-embedding model focuses on early childhood stress, while the sensitization model looks at how current life stress interacts with early life stress to produce flat diurnal cortisol slopes.
The results showed that people who had high stress during childhood and in adulthood, particularly at age 37, had a flatter cortisol pattern. This meant that it is not going through the healthy fluctuations as it is supposed to.
The researchers also found that the amount of a person’s exposure to stressful situations in early life plays a key role in the development of unhealthy patterns of cortisol release. However, this only applies if individuals are also experiencing higher levels of stress currently. This suggested that the combination of high stress levels in early life and in current life leads to the unhealthiest cortisol profiles.
Fortunately, it does not necessarily mean that all people who had experienced childhood traumas will show this cortisol pattern in their adult life. Instead, it is a combination of the two – stress as a child and stress as an adult – that could result in poor health outcomes. Having high levels of stress for a long period has been associated with problems like hormonal imbalance, sleep problems, and a weak immune system. (Related: Keep Cortisol at Bay: How to Balance the Stress Hormone.)
While you can’t erase your stressful childhood experiences, there are things that you can do to manage your cortisol levels now.
Read more stories on how to take care of your mental health at Brain.news.