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Is Stress Making you Anxious or Depressed?

What is the HPA axis?

The primary function of the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is to regulate the stress response. When you experience a stressor, the hypothalamus (a small structure that sits in the brain stem) controls the release of hormones from the pituitary gland (sits just under the hypothalamus). The hypothalamus does this by releasing something called corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRF). CRF travels to the pituitary gland where it signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which travels to the adrenal glands (sit just above the kidneys). ACTH signals the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. After a certain level of cortisol is achieved, the hypothalamus stops secreting CRF which causes the pituitary gland to stop secreting ACTH.

What does cortisol do?

During the “fight or flight” response our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol allowing us to respond appropriately/for survival to the situation. Imagine you’re on a hike and you encounter a bear, you: 1) Run 2) stay and fight the bear 3) play dead (let’s pretend this isn’t an option). Cortisol has a protective role on the body by stimulating the breakdown of glycogen into glucose in the liver to provide the body with energy. Cortisol also supplies the body with energy by releasing fatty acids from adipose fat and amino acids from skeletal muscle. Cortisol is needed to restore energy reserves after a stressful event.

Why is too much cortisol a bad thing?

Cortisol plays a necessary and protective mechanism for the body. In the past we didn’t have as many stressors as we do now, people didn’t sit in traffic for hours, work 40+ hours a week, rush home to make dinner then get to soccer/hockey practice AND live with an ever mounting amount of debt. In addition to this, think of your day-to-day stresses, we need to make enough money to pay for that house, the bills, and pay for things like massages, vacations, etc to relax and keep our minds off of our continual financial, work, and life stressors. We sleep less so that we can do more. This repetitive and sustained state of stress/worry placed on our bodies can result in our cortisol levels being higher than they should be.

Chronic exposure to elevated cortisol levels is linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, forgetfulness, fatigue, and suppression of the immune system.

The connection between cortisol and anxiety and depression

The inability to control stress-induced cortisol will result in a greater overall exposure to cortisol. Cortisol levels are usually higher in people dealing with depression. Studies have shown that individuals with depression are found to have higher levels of plasma cortisol concentration compared to those without depression. One study examining the relationship between cortisol and anxiety, in 52 adolescents aged 10-14, found that elevated blood cortisol levels were linked to higher levels of general anxiety and social anxiety in girls but not boys.

How to balance cortisol levels

1. Regular and moderate exercise. Exercise releases endorphins like serotonin and dopamine which help with relieving anxiety and depression.

2. Spend time outdoors. Frequently spending time outdoors can help reduce cortisol levels. Outdoor activities often put us in a mindful state of mind as we become present in what we are doing (gardening, hiking, walking,) Being outside can also help with your sleep by regulating your circadian rhythm while sunlight improves your mood and is also known to boost serotonin levels.

3. Find out what’s causing your high stress levels, do you need to downsize? Work less? Take a vacation? Change jobs? Take some time to truly reflect on this because when you know what is causing your high stress levels it is easier to find a solution.

4. Ensure you are getting enough sleep every night. Insufficient sleep increases your cortisol level which also affects your deep sleep cycle or delta waves. The recommended amount of sleep is 8-9 hours per night, although this can vary by the individual.

5. Turn off all email and social media notifications after a certain time each day. Even if

you are unaware of the effects, the constant buzzing, beeping and seeing the screen lighting up could be contributing to your anxiety.

6. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Plant based foods contain phytonutrients and provide our bodies with a plethora of vitamins and minerals that help with memory, anxiety, energy, etc. Consume moderate amounts of protein, most North Americans consume far more meat based protein than the body requires. Meat can take 4-6 hours to be digested by your stomach before it travels to the small intestine, eating late and going to bed could be contributing to sleepless nights.

Wishing you Good Mood and Good Health,



Schiefelbein, V. & Susman, E. (2006). Cortisol Levels and Longitudinal Cortisol Change as Predictors of Anxiety in Adolescents. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 26(4), 397-413.

Van Praag, H.M. (2004). Can stress cause depression? Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 28(5), 891 – 907.