HPA Axis Dysfunction: Genes and Environment

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in times of stress, and it also plays many roles in your normal bodily functions. It is a multi-purpose hormone that needs to be in the right amount (not too high, not too low) and at the right time. Your genes play a big role in how likely you are to have problems with cortisol.

HPA Axis Dysfunction:

The problems with cortisol come when levels are chronically elevated – or chronically low. There are two conditions of extreme cortisol dysregulation: Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease. Cushing’s is due to too much cortisol, either from glucocorticoid medications or too much cortisol produced by the adrenals due to a pituitary tumor. Symptoms of Cushing’s include high blood pressure, abdominal weight gain, round face, stretch marks, thin skin, and, in women, facial hair and menstrual irregularities. Addison’s is due to too little cortisol production. Symptoms include weight loss, muscle weakness,  nausea, and changes in mood.

Symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction

While Cushing’s and Addison’s show the extreme’s of cortisol disorders, there are milder manifestations that plague many of us. HPA axis dysfunction can mean that cortisol is chronically elevated and/or that it doesn’t respond appropriately to stress. It can also be due to a disrupted rhythm of cortisol production over the course of a day.

Chronically elevated cortisol can be due to repeated stress (physical or mental), genetic variants (below), and traumatic childhood events (epigenetic trigger). [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to:

  • diabetes, insulin resistance [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • immune dysfunction [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • depression and anxiety [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • coronary artery disease [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • reproductive problems [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • weight gain [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Immune dysfunction:
One theory is that chronically elevated cortisol leads to glucocorticoid receptor resistance, which is a downregulation of the glucocorticoid receptor. When acute stress occurs, the body then cannot mount a normal stress response. This can lead to an increased susceptibility to infections, including colds.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Depression:
Reduced glucocorticoid receptor function along with altered cortisol circadian rhythm is found in women who have depression. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] Several other studies show that higher basal levels of cortisol along with altered cortisol circadian rhythm is associated with major depressive disorder. This seems to be a two-way street — treating depression can reduce elevated cortisol levels. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Metabolic syndrome:
Hypertension, insulin resistance, and altered lipids add up metabolic syndrome. And obesity goes hand-in-hand here… So what does research show on obesity and cortisol? Hair cortisol levels, which give an average cortisol reading for the past few months, were tested in a group of British adults. The cortisol levels in hair were higher in those who were obese (BMI >30) and with larger waist circumferences. Higher hair cortisol levels also correlated to being overweight for a longer period of time (>4 years). [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]  This doesn’t mean that for everyone, weight gain is due to cortisol being high, but that for at least part of the population, higher cortisol correlates with higher weight.

Infertility:
Constant activation of the HPA axis can cause problems when trying to conceive. This is due to cortisol shifting the ratio of follicle stimulation hormone to luteinizing hormone (FSH:LH). This causes decreased egg quality and an increased risk of infertility. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] Read more details here.

Childhood trauma

I mentioned above that cortisol levels are controlled by three factors: genetics, chronic stress, and childhood trauma.  There is quite a bit of scientific evidence that shows that childhood trauma can cause persistent changes in the HPA axis. One study describes it as the brain becoming sensitized, thus allowing episodes of depression to occur more frequently. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Childhood trauma can be mental or physical – from child abuse to a parent dying to having childhood leukemia.  Genetics interacts with this, and some people are more resilient to childhood trauma than others. Certain genetic variants cause a higher basal cortisol level with a blunted response to actual, acute stress. This increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Adrenal fatigue: is it real?

Adrenal fatigue is an idea promulgated by alternative medicine practitioners. The idea is that chronic stress causes the adrenals to wear out – become exhausted – and not be able to produce enough cortisol. This is thought to cause overall fatigue, depression, weight gain, brain fog, etc. Examples of alternative health sites writing about adrenal fatigue: Dr. Northrup’s adrenal fatigue article, Dr. Wilson’s adrenal fatigue website, Dave Asprey – Bulletproof – chiming in on the adrenal fatigue idea. This is just a handful of examples, and all the big alternative health websites used to be on the adrenal fatigue band-wagon.

Most endocrinologists don’t think that adrenal fatigue is real. And research studies back up the idea that the adrenal glands aren’t worn out, exhausted, or not producing enough cortisol.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]  In fact, some alternative medicine practitioners seem to be re-vamping the way that they talk about adrenal fatigue and now are morphing their articles to talk about HPA axis dysfunction. [article][article]


Genetic Variants in the HPA Axis

More and more research is coming out on how genetic variants in the HPA axis affect an individual’s response to chronic stress.  A recent study found that a combined genetic risk score (including some of the variants below) successfully predicts cortisol levels and the interaction with stressful life events in children. This was also linked to hippocampal and amygdala volume in the children. So cortisol levels and stress are literally changing the brain in ways that vary based on genetics. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

NR3C1 genetic variants

The NR3C1 gene codes for the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). This receptor receives the ACTH signal in times of higher stress and at peak circadian cortisol release.  The first two variants are less common (found in around 2% of the population) and more impactful. 

Check your genetic data for rs6189 ER22 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA)

  • C/C: normal
  • C/T: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance
  • T/T: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs6190 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA) 23EK:

  • C/C: normal
  • C/T: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance
  • T/T: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs6198 (AncestryDNA only):

  • A/A: normal
  • A/G: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance
  • G/G: glucocorticoid (cortisol) resistance (not pathogenic) [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs41423247 (Ancestry DNA only):

  • C/C: hypersensitivity to glucocorticoids (cortisol) [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • C/G: normal
  • G/G: normal

Check your genetic data for rs6191 (23andMe v4 only, Ancestry DNA):

  • A/A: increased risk of depression, increased resistance to glucocorticoids (cortisol) [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • C/A: normal risk of depression
  • C/C: normal

Check your genetic data for rs10052957 (23andMe v4, AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: higher evening and total cortisol, increased risk of depression[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • A/G: normal
  • G/G: normal

 NR3C2 gene:

­The NR3C2 gene codes for the mineralocorticoid receptor protein (MR), which is what cortisol binds to during normal basal levels.

Check your genetic data for rs5522 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: higher plasma cortisol, depression in elderly, increased reactivity to adversity (in children)[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • C/T: higher plasma cortisol, depression in elderly, increased reactivity to adversity (in children)
  • T/T: normal

CRHR1 gene:

The CRHR1 gene codes for the corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor. This is what the corticotropin-releasing hormone binds to in the pituitary gland to signal for ACTH production.

Check your genetic data for rs110402 (23andMe v5, AncestryDNA)

  • G/G: elevated cortisol in people exposed to childhood trauma [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • A/G: slightly increased risk of depression in childhood trauma
  • A/A: normal, decreased risk of MDD in non-smokers [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs242924 (23andMe v4, AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: elevated cortisol in people exposed to childhood trauma [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • G/T: slightly increased risk of depression in childhood trauma
  • T/T: normal

Check your genetic data for rs242941 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: a minor increase in depression risk [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • A/C: a minor increase in the risk of depression
  • C/C: normal

Check your genetic data for rs242939 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: normal
  • C/T: a minor increase in the risk of depression
  • C/C: increased risk of depression[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

FKBP5 gene:

The FKBP5 gene codes for a chaperone protein that regulates the sensitivity of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR).  When FKBP5 binds to GR, it reduces the receptor’s affinity for cortisol and decreases its translocation to the nucleus.  This protein essentially turns down the production of cortisol.

Check your genetic data for rs1360780 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: normal
  • C/T: increased risk for depression – better response to antidepressants.
  • T/T: increased risk for depression, incomplete cortisol recovery and increased anxiety after psychosocial stress [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs3800373 (23andMe v4, v5, AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: normal
  • A/C: slightly increased risk of MDD
  • C/C: slightly increased risk of MDD [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

 MC2R gene:

Melanocortin 2 receptor is the receptor for ACTH, located mainly in the adrenal cortex.

Check your genetic data for rs1941088 (AncestryDNA only):

  • A/A – low cortisol response [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • A/G – normal
  • G/G – normal

Check your genetic data for rs28940892 (23andMe v4, AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: normal
  • C/T: carrier of a pathogenic allele for ACTH resistance
  • C/C: ACTH resistance [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

SERPINA6 gene:

This gene codes for the corticosteroid-binding globulin (also called transcortin) protein which transports cortisol in the bloodstream.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs11621961 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: normal cortisol binding globulin
  • C/T: somewhat less cortisol binding globulin, less plasma cortisol
  • T/T: less cortisol binding globulin, less plasma cortisol [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Check your genetic data for rs941601 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: normal pain
  • C/T: more musculoskeletal pain thought to be due to blunted cortisol response
  • T/T: more musculoskeletal pain thought to be due to blunted cortisol response [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Lifehacks:

Most of these ‘lifehacks’ involve reducing high cortisol levels.  If you have genetic variants tied to lower cortisol, skip down to the adaptogens info.

Reducing Overall Stress:
It seems obvious to state that eliminating stress should help reduce cortisol levels. Sometimes, though, it is hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to stress in your life.

Big things to look at include financial stress and relationship stress.

While it is easy to give advice such as ‘cut out cable’ or ‘stop spending too much on clothes’, making the right decisions to get out of financial or relationship stress can be hard. See, the catch-22 here is that elevated cortisol levels change the way that people make decisions. One study of stock traders showed that elevating their cortisol levels by giving them exogenous cortisol distorted their risk-taking decision making. Other studies show similar results with higher cortisol levels causing poorer decision making. If you know you are not making wise decisions, try seeking out advice from a coach or mentor. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Switching your mental attitude from one of being a victim (victim of divorce, social injustice, financial adversity, etc) to one of being a problem solver may help lower cortisol levels. There have been a couple of studies lately that looked at ‘gratitude’ interventions (such as writing a gratitude letter or journal), but the results didn’t show that gratitude journaling lowers cortisol significantly.  Instead, interventions that work on modifying expectations and distracting yourself (instead of ruminating) lead to lower cortisol levels. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Yoga and Meditation:
Meditation decreases cortisol levels.  [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
Studies on yoga show that it generally improves the HPA axis, but results are somewhat mixed.  It may depend on the type of yoga.  [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]  People doing Hatha yoga showed decreased cortisol on yoga days: [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Commune with the trees:
Forest bathing, popular in Japan, reduces cortisol levels. [refTrusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]Another study showing that going to a natural forest area (vs an urban park) decreased cortisol: [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Sleep & Circadian rhythm:
There are lots of studies showing that the amount and quality of sleep affect cortisol levels.  Generally, short sleep raises overall cortisol the next day.  Short sleep can cause a decrease in the circadian rhythm of cortisol, flattening the overnight peak but slightly higher during the next day. Normal fluctuations in the amount of sleep don’t seem to influence cortisol much. So, for example, if one night you get seven hours of sleep vs normally getting 8 hours, it shouldn’t affect cortisol the next day. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

A recent study showed that getting more sleep the night before lead to a decreased stress response during the morning and afternoon, but that effect wore off by evening.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] So you need good quality sleep and a good quantity of sleep, every single night.

Alongside sleep is circadian rhythm. Your cortisol levels should exhibit a robust circadian rhythm, rising around the time that you wake up in the morning. Exposure to light in the blue wavelengths at night shuts down melatonin, affecting sleep and overall circadian rhythm.  A 2010 study also showed that exposure to light in the red wavelengths also affects cortisol rhythm, indicating that the stress hormone function isn’t only dependent on blue light.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]  Decreasing overall light exposure at night by turning off overhead lights and opting for lower lamp lighting may help with cortisol circadian rhythm.

Chew Gum:
Chewing (mastication) during stressful conditions “suppresses the hyperactivity of the HPA axis via GC’s and GC receptors within the hippocampus, and ameliorates chronic stress-induced hippocampus-dependent cognitive deficits.“  [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] And now it makes sense why some people are drawn to chewing gum – or chewing on a straw or pencil – when stressed. Perhaps we should all be chewing gum while driving in rush hour traffic.

BPA:
Studies show that BPA, a substance found in many plastics, is able to bind to the glucocorticoid receptor.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] So increased exposure to BPA may mimic increased cortisol levels as well as affecting fat cells and androgen production.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

CBD Oil, but only when under acute stress:
A recent animal study showed that cannabidiol doesn’t affect the HPA axis under baseline conditions, but when under stress conditions, low and intermediate doses of CBD blocked the HPA axis effects of stress.  [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Saturated and unsaturated fats have opposite reactions:
An animal study found that saturated fats suppress ACTH and unsaturated fats increased ACTH release.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] A human study found that oleic and linoleic (both unsaturated fats) stimulated the adrenocortical cells. Saturated fat had no effect on cortisol production.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Taking both of these results indicates that avoiding unsaturated fats, especially in the form of fried foods, may decrease your cortisol levels. Step away from those french fries…

Supplements that may increase cortisol levels:
An animal study found that N-acetylcysteine (NA/C) and vitamin E increase corticosterone (cortisol) levels.  NA/C reduced GR and MR expression in the pituitary, which caused hyperactivity of the HPA axis.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] Keep in mind that this is an animal study.

Adaptagens that may decrease or moderate cortisol levels:
Adaptogens are herbs that have been used traditionally for thousands of years to moderate stress response. It seems like every region has adaptogens that are native plants that have been chewed or brewed as traditional medicine. Modern research backs up these adaptogens in their role in moderating the HPA axis.

  • Holy Basil shown in animal studies to inhibit cortisol release. You can get Holy Basil as a supplement or drink it as Tulsi tea. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • Ashwagandha has been shown in multiple clinical trials and research studies to reduce cortisol. One study, for example, tested 300 mg/twice a day vs. placebo. After 8 weeks, cortisol was reduced by an average of 22%. Weight also went down for the Ashwagandha group. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]  [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • Rhodiola has been shown to reduce high cortisol levels.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]
  • Korean Ginseng reduces the increase in cortisol due to stress.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Exercise and Eating Carbs:
Prolonged heavy exercise (>1 hr) usually causes a stress response and elevates cortisol levels, but moderate exercise is good for modulating cortisol levels. Eating carbs before prolonged exercise helps to decrease the cortisol response. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Weight Loss:
Long term weight loss is associated with lower cortisol levels. [ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal] The study doesn’t really make clear whether lowering cortisol caused weight loss or if the weight loss caused the body to have less physical stress and thus lower cortisol.

Puppies and Oxytocin:
Oxytocin, a hormone that produces good feelings of love,  reduces ACTH and cortisol.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Oxytocin is released in copious amounts after childbirth and is responsible for parent-child bonding.  But there are other (much easier) ways to increase oxytocin levels as well.

Oxytocin is intertwined with smell receptors and memory. It is what links good feelings to a certain smell. (Like smelling a baby’s head…  but I don’t think that wandering around your local park sniffing babies is necessarily a recommended ‘lifehack’ for lowering cortisol.) Instead, try using aromatherapy or essential oils to associate smells with feelings of relaxation. Lavender essential oil has recently been studied and found to ameliorate depression due to high cortisol (in animals). But if you don’t like lavender, find a scent that you do like and use it while doing something that makes you relaxed.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal][ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Studies show that bonding with your dog will raise oxytocin levels. So maybe taking a break at work and looking at dog or cat videos is actually lowering your cortisol levels instead of just wasting time.[ref Trusted Source: Peer Reviewed Journal]

Video – Learn More:

 


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Author Information:   Debbie Moon
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. She holds a Master of Science in Biological Sciences from Clemson University. Debbie is a science communicator who is passionate about explaining evidence-based health information. Her goal with Genetic Lifehacks is to bridge the gap between scientific research and the lay person's ability to utilize that information. To contact Debbie, visit the contact page.