Chronic Stress: Cortisol and Oxytocin

Side effects of chronic excessive cortisol levels and a way to ease them by naturaly raising oxytocin levels.

Stress, in today’s modern technological cultures, runs ramped, the medical effects of chronic stress on the human body can be devastating. Acute (sudden stress) is normal, it is part of the fight or flight process that all animals have including humans. It provides the sudden short-term biological mechanisms to respond and act in the face of sudden dangers. Chronic and prolonged stress is a state of existence that is contrary to how the body is designed to cope with stress. Cronic stress can lead to heart attack, stroke, depression, immune deficiency, impaired memory, diabetes, and mid-torso fat storage which is unrelated to eating habits and diet.

So, what happens to the body when there is stress? First stress lowers dopamine levels, dopamine is a chemical your body produces, it is a neurotransmitter, this chemical helps transmit signals in the brain that helps with movement, motivation, feelings of pleasure, and happiness. Secondly, stress increases cortisol levels which then triggers the body’s mechanisms to produce epinephrine. The sudden rise of epinephrine and glucocorticoid levels in the body affects cognitive performance, that is to say, it affects how an individual processes information and reacts. (Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009). In the brain, hypothalamic–pituitary– adrenocortical (HPA) axis regulates the release of cortisol both physical and psychological stressors, the HPA cannot distinguish the difference between a physical or psychological stressor to the HBA they are just stressors (Dickerson, & Kemeny, M. E. 2004). Because of this psychological stressor can produce a physiological response. 

HBA Axis

Stress actives the HBA axis 

In the brain, the thalamus and frontal lobes process sensory information, from a person’s five senses to determine the significance of the environmental stimuli around an individual. These cognitive appraisals may generate an emotional activating the HPA axis. (Reviews on central nervous system inputs to the HPA system Feldman, Conforti, & Weidenfeld, 1995; Lovallo, 1997; or Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009). Activation of the HPA axis initiates release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus, which causes the anterior pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which signals the adrenal cortex to release cortisol into the bloodstream.

It is important to remember that The HPA axis is critical for normal physiological functions and systems, your body needs this process to function normally. Cortisol under normal conditions plays an essential role in a body’s metabolism. It initializes energy resources to provide “fuel” for the body, primarily by elevating blood glucose levels and the release of energy reserves. Cortisol is also an important regulator of other physiological systems, cortisol can inhibit the immune system, act as an anti-inflammatory because of its ability to inhibit proteins that regulating inflammation. The body requires an adequate level of Cortisol for proper release of catecholamines and other products to regulate the cardiovascular system. The conditions that affect cortisol levels can influence many physiological responses that can be affected by HPA axis activity. 

Chronic Excess Cortisol

The problem of chronic stress comes from prolonged chronic activation of the HPA axis. When the HPA system is conically activated, it can produce dire implications for memory, health, and disease. (Buchanan & Lovallo, 2001; Kirschbaum, Wolf, May, Wippich, & Hellhammer, 1996;), It can produce symptoms of depression (Brown & Suppes, 1998; Heim & Nemeroff, 1999). Chronic cortisol activation produced by frequent exposure to stress, or by the bodies inability to shut down its response to stress can cause many negative biological effects, including suppression of the immune, damage to hippocampal neurons; and the development or rapid progression of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension (Boomershine, Wang, & Zwilling, 2001).

Pets can help.

There is a way to counteract the effects of stress naturally the increase of oxytocin levels in the body. Oxytocin eases fear and anxiety by not eliciting a fear or anxiety responce (Guzmán YF, et al. 2013) instead oxytocin increases the ability to respond to positive social stimuli, causing animal and human to pay closer attention to socially relevant stimuli. Oxytocin is produced by males and females and plays a critical role in bonding between mothers and babies, sexual partners, familial bonding, and the bonding between humans and pets. Oxytocin is nicknamed the cuddle hormone. Hundreds of studies have provided strong evidence of the ability of Oxytocin to reduce the effects of stress. 

Here is a list of activities outside of sex and childbirth that can naturally raise oxytocin levels.

  1. 10 Hugs a day
  2. Holding hands
  3. Playing with animals
  4. Playing games with others
  5. Guided meditation
  6. Getting a massage
  7. Dancing
  8. Sharing a meal (without devices)
  9. Soaking in the tub or bubble baths
  10. Give gifts  
  11. Give notes of encouragement and/ or appreciation to others
  12. Laugh
  13. Go to a shooting range with a friend and shoot at targets
  14. Karaoke
  15. Attending and participating in support groups
  16. Facebook (Warning: weed out mean friends they can add to stress)
  17. Call and talk with positive people
  18. Love others
  19. Love yourself 
  20. Exercise  


Boomershine, C. S., Wang, T., & Zwilling, B. S. (2001). Neuroendocrine regulation of macrophage and neutrophil function. In R. Ader, D. L. Felten, & N. Cohen (Eds.), Psychoneuroimmunology (3rd ed., pp. 289 – 300). New York: Academic Press

Brown, E. S., & Suppes, T. (1998). Mood symptoms during corticosteroid therapy: A review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 5, 239 –246.

Buchanan, T. W., & Lovallo, W. R. (2001). Enhanced memory for emotional material following stress-level cortisol treatment in humans. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26, 307–317

Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 355.

Feldman, S., Conforti, N., & Weidenfeld, J. (1995). Limbic pathways and hypothalamic neurotransmitters mediating adrenocortical responses to neural stimuli. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 19, 235–240.

Guzmán YF, Tronson NC, Jovasevic V, Sato K, Guedea AL, Mizukami H, Nishimori K, Radulovic J (September 2013). "Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors". Nature Neuroscience. 16 (9): 1185–7.

Heim, C., & Nemeroff, C. B. (1999). The impact of early adverse experiences on brain systems involved in the pathophysiology of anxiety and affective disorders. Biological Psychiatry, 46, 1509 –1522.

Heim, C., Newport, D. J., Heit, S., Graham, Y. P., Wilcox, M., Bonsall, R., et al. (2000). Pituitary–adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood. JAMA, 284, 592– 597.

Heim, C., Newport, D. J., Wagner, D., Wilcox, M. M., Miller, A. H., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2002). The role of early adverse experience and adulthood stress in the prediction of neuroendocrine stress reactivity in women: A multiple regression analysis. Depression & Anxiety, 15, 117–125.

Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389-1398.

Kirschbaum, C., Wolf, O. T., May, M., Wippich, W., & Hellhammer, D. H. (1996). Stress- and treatment-induced elevations of cortisol levels associated with impaired declarative memory in healthy adults. Life Sciences, 58, 1475–1483.

Lovallo, W. R. (1997). Stress & health: Biological and psychological interactions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behavior, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.

Quirin, M., Kuhl, J., & Düsing, R. (2011). Oxytocin buffers cortisol responses to stress in individuals with impaired emotion regulation abilities. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(6), 898-904

Smith, A. S., & Wang, Z. (2014). Hypothalamic oxytocin mediates social buffering of the stress response. Biological Psychiatry, 76(4), 281-288.

Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth, and healing. Z Psychosom Med Psychother, 51(1), 57-80. 

M.J. Green
M.J. Green

M.J Green holds degrees in Chemistry, Biology, Criminal Justice. and Psychology.  She is a Biologist, Chemist, Criminalist, writer, and teacher. M.J is proud of her families current, and future military service to the USA.

Now Reading
Chronic Stress: Cortisol and Oxytocin