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Understanding the Role of Hormones in Stress Responses

Understanding the Role of Hormones in Stress Responses


Today, we're going to dive into the fascinating world of hormones and their impact on our development and mental well-being. We'll be taking a closer look at two key players - cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) - and how they influence our physiological and behavioral responses to stress. So, grab a cup of coffee and let's unravel the science behind these hormones.


When it comes to dealing with stress, our bodies have a complex system in place, and one crucial component of this system is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is responsible for helping us adapt to environmental demands and maintaining a balance in our bodies. However, prolonged stress can throw this system off track, leading to changes in hormone levels and sensitivity, which can have far-reaching effects on our physical and mental well-being.

Synthesis and Production of Cortisol and DHEA

Let's start by understanding how cortisol and DHEA are produced in our bodies. Both cortisol and DHEA are released as part of a coordinated hormonal response to stress, with the HPA axis playing a central role. The adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, are responsible for the production of these hormones, and they are released in response to signals from the brain.

Cortisol and DHEA play important roles in the brain and body, exerting various effects on our overall health. DHEA can be converted into DHEA-S, which is the predominant form of DHEA in our bodies. It's important to note that the levels of these hormones change significantly as we age, indicating their crucial role in our development.

Mechanisms of Action of Cortisol and DHEA

So, how do cortisol and DHEA actually work in our bodies? Well, when we experience stress, the HPA axis is activated, leading to the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). These hormones then stimulate the production and release of cortisol and DHEA from the adrenal glands. Cortisol and DHEA have diverse effects on our stress responses, arousal, immunity, attention, and cognition.

Opposing Regulatory Functions of Cortisol and DHEA

One interesting aspect of cortisol and DHEA is that they often have opposing functions. While cortisol is known for its role in promoting stress responses, DHEA has been found to counteract some of the effects of cortisol, thereby lessening its physiological impact. This dynamic interplay between the two hormones highlights the importance of considering their levels relative to each other, rather than in isolation, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their impact on our health.

Responses of Cortisol and DHEA to Stress

In the face of stress, our bodies undergo significant hormonal changes. Cortisol and DHEA levels fluctuate in response to stressors, and understanding these dynamics can provide valuable insights into how our bodies adapt to and cope with stressful situations.

Role of the Cortisol/DHEA Ratio in Developmental Psychopathology

As we grow and develop, the levels of cortisol and DHEA in our bodies also change. From the perinatal period through adolescence, these hormonal changes play a crucial role in shaping our physiological and behavioral responses to stress. The balance between cortisol and DHEA is not just important for our physical health but also for our mental well-being. Imbalances in the cortisol/DHEA ratio have been associated with various developmental psychopathologies, shedding light on the intricate relationship between these hormones and our mental health.

Internalizing and Externalising Disorders

Internalizing disorders, such as anxiety and depression, have been linked to dysregulation in the cortisol/DHEA ratio, emphasizing the role of these hormones in shaping our emotional well-being. On the other hand, externalizing disorders, like conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have also been associated with alterations in the cortisol/DHEA ratio, underscoring the broad impact of these hormones on our behavioral responses.Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, have also been the focus of research exploring the role of cortisol and DHEA in the development and maintenance of these conditions.

Limitations of Research on Cortisol and DHEA

While we've made significant strides in understanding the roles of cortisol and DHEA in our development and mental health, there are still limitations and gaps in our knowledge that need to be addressed through further research.

Conclusions and Future Directions

In conclusion, the interplay between cortisol and DHEA is a fascinating area of study that holds immense potential for advancing our understanding of human development and psychopathology. By delving deeper into the roles of these hormones, we can pave the way for new insights and interventions to promote both our physical and mental well-being.

I hope this blog has sparked your curiosity and shed some light on the fascinating science behind our hormonal responses to stress. Until next time, stay curious and keep exploring the wonders of the human body!

Citation: Hayley S. Kamin and Darlene A. Kertes, “Cortisol and DHEA in Development and Psychopathology,” Hormones and Behavior 89 (2017): 69–85,


  • Cortisol: (cortisol) Main glucocorticoid secreted by the adrenal cortex; its synthetic counterpart is used, either as an injection or topically, in the treatment of inflammation, allergy, collagen diseases, asthma, adrenocortical deficiency, shock, and some neoplastic conditions. (

  • Adrenal Glands: (gland, adrenal) The endocrine glands adjacent to the kidneys that consist of the outer adrenal cortex and the inner adrenal medulla in mammals. (

  • Perinatal Period: Relating to the period shortly before and after birth (in humans, beginning the twentieth week of gestation and ending four weeks after birth). CRISP Thesaurus (

  • Developmental Psychopathology: Developmental psychopathology is the study of psychological disorders and atypical patterns of behavior that emerge during development, particularly in childhood and adolescence.

  • Internalizing Disorders: Internalizing disorders are psychological conditions characterized by inward-focused symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.

  • Externalizing Disorders: Externalizing disorders are psychological conditions characterized by outward-focused symptoms, such as conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

  • Eating Disorders: A broad group of psychological disorders with abnormal eating behaviors leading to physiological effects from overeating or insufficient food intake. (

  • Psychopathologies: Psychopathologies refer to mental disorders or conditions that significantly impact an individual's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

  • Imbalances: Imbalances refer to an unequal or disproportionate distribution of elements, in this context, referring to the disproportionate levels of cortisol and DHEA in the body.

  • Interventions: Interventions are actions or strategies aimed at improving or addressing specific issues, in this case, related to promoting physical and mental well-being.

  • Research: Critical and exhaustive investigation or experimentation, having for its aim the discovery of new facts and their correct interpretation, the revision of accepted conclusions, theories, or laws in the light of newly discovered facts, or the practical application of such new or revised conclusions, theories, or laws. (Webster, 3d ed) NLM Medical Subject Headings (

  • Limitations: Limitations are constraints or shortcomings in a study or field of knowledge that may hinder a comprehensive understanding of a topic.

  • Conclusions: Conclusions are the final outcomes or deductions drawn from a study or analysis, summarizing the key findings and implications.

  • Future Directions: Future directions refer to potential paths for further exploration and study in a particular field, indicating areas where additional research is needed.