Need a perfect paper? Place your first order and save 5% with this code:   SAVE5NOW

The Effects of Early-Life Stress on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and Depression


Every day, there is new evidence of how the environment one gets to be in their formative years significantly impacts our experiences and brain functions. Stress in early life can adversely affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis’s programming and development, cause variations of neurochemistry and signalling pathways involved in regulating neuroplasticity, and results in neurobehavioral changes. The HPA axis plays a significant role in arbitrating the long term effects of stress by releasing a flow of corticosteroids in adrenal glands. Activating of HPA allows for an appropriate behavioural and brain response on a stressor, although this adaptation may change susceptibility to stress in later life.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis starts its development in the fetus and continues after the child’s birth. HPA development can be protected by some mechanisms which prevent corticosteroid excess exposure to the growing and maturing brain. Nonetheless, exposure to any stress in early life is said to contain tremendous magnitudes on HPA functioning in later life. This affects both its basal and stress-induced activity. All of our early life experiences and genetic makeup determine our vulnerability to mental health disorders. This paper will focus on neurobehavioral aspects like depression resulting from structural and functional changes of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.


Studies have shown that exposure to adverse environmental conditions in early life has long-lasting effects on health, mental and behavioural functions (de Abreu, et al. 2022). In human beings, negative early experiences like famine, neglect by parents, violence, and drug abuse can cause developmental disorders such as lack of attention, suicidal thoughts, anxiety attacks, and cardiogenic defects. This paper sheds light concerning the adverse effects of early life stress to HPA axis and depression.

Humans are known to adapt and habituate to environments they are exposed to; this is with the help of the corticosteroid releasing hormone (CRH) that co-expressed vasopressin that expresses CRH effects. The CRH neurons projects to the median prominence and in the brain where stress is defined as any condition that may include an adversative experience, an environment, and a peril that seems to change an organism’s normal homeostasis. This prompts physiological reaction that involves the peripheral and central structures by releasing glucocorticoids in the adrenal cortex from the triggering of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA), which not only controls the adrenal innervation of the autonomic system but also affects frame of mind. Although this adaptation is helpful in normal conditions since it assists the forecast of experience of similar conditions during later life, in this situation, it appears to cause higher susceptibility to illnesses.

The public health sector should be concerned with the lifelong consequences of early life stress on various environments’ hormonal, neuronal and nutritional structures. Reducing and overall prevention of stress in early life is ideal (Eachus, 2021). Modifying later settings can Be beneficial in accentuating illnesses and identifying targets of interest for intervention. Future studies should be concerned with significant lifestyle factors that are in play during the critical periods of exposure and their effects on adults and their entire life.


There have been various studies with very similar and consistent results that early life stress and trauma increase the risk of adulthood depression cases in the world. Indeed, psychosocial stress in early life can adequately predict depression in adults outside of any genetic tendencies. Some examples include; women who experience abuse as children have a higher likelihood of having eating disorders and are overweight, and have a food addiction. A famine situation has been associated with adults’ poor life choices like smoking and lack of physical activity, high food security in a maternally stressed woman during the period of pregnancy, and overweight infants.

It has been proved that parental stress may result in their children becoming overweight and resultantly obese depending on how the children perceive this stressor. The increased intake of fast foods in adolescents and children is related to stress. There is a link between the level of receiving the pressure and food consumption frequency, and it can be controlled by palatable food access paired with physical activities. With this control, early life stress can be reduced in children, and poor metabolic outcomes can be avoided in adults.

Children frequently imitate the behaviours of their parents. Therefore, parents must improve their childhood care since it is critical in developing healthy behaviours and good outcomes in children. There should be an effective push for parents to strengthen their attitudes toward childcare, for example, by reducing stress and advocating for healthy eating habits to help curb all results of early life stress to all successive generations and advance their health status.

Engaging in physical activities at a young age has also been very important in facilitating a role against most of the childhood stressors in the environment. Highly active children execute reduced salivary cortisol reaction to nerve-wracking situations; this reflects in the lower activity of the HPA axis. Mistreatment of children is associated with increased levels of inflammation as adults. Early life stress and the increase in inflammation as an adult can offer clinical reverence and links to adverse childhood experiences and a risky adulthood metabolism. Physical activities benefit the immune system functions and reduce inflammation markers that may be related to disease and, consequently, lifestyle decisions as an adult.

Behavioural characteristics associated with childhood stress amplify the risks of psychiatric and psychosocial disorders. Behaviour alone may influence the chances of metabolic diseases.

In the matter of sex, the female gender is severely affected by the onset of ELS, the ratio being twice more likely in women than men. Women usually get more significant detrimental effects of early life stress, such as, major depressive disorder. Thus far, there have been several unsuccessful trials of a model mouse successfully replicating the sexual bias symptomatology. Both sex differences go beyond the occurrence rate; this is evident in the manifestation of disease symptoms, the causes, the complexity, the onset of the disease and ultimately, the treatment efficiency. Regardless of the noteworthy sex differences, it is not yet known the cause of females being more susceptible to stress-induced pathology.

In the event of something inducing stress happening, the body has an initial response facilitated by the sympathetic nerve. This action causes the discharge of the hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine that trigger physical reactions to stress like increased heart rate. After this initial reaction, it takes the body about 10 seconds to stimulate HPA. The hypothalamus of the brain first discharges the hormone corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which acts as the fundamental regulator of the HPA axis (Ross, 2018). In addition to increasing the sympathetic nervous system activity, the CRH likewise signals the pituitary glands below the hypothalamus. The hormones Glucocorticoids can influence and affect anti-inflammatory, metabolism and the immune system. Cortisol is then released from the adrenal cortex, which affects the body. Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones that upsurges glucose in the blood. All activities of the HPA axis are controlled through the negative response actions of the glucocorticoid hormones.

Any exposure to early life stress, prenatal or postnatal, has been seen to impact the development of signalling pathways; this results in permanent physical and regulatory alterations that incline to later-life diseases. Clinical, epidemiology and additional experimental studies have shown that ELS yields lifelong hyper-responsiveness to stress by hyperbolic circulating glucocorticoids, with advanced anxiety with depression-related characteristics (Galts, 2019). There have been new evidence that has come to life that has proved early life stress-induced metabolic maladies. This shows some probable mechanisms that underlay early life stress induced dissension in the HPA axis and the succeeding results on energy output, application and disbursement.

If there are developmental deficiencies in hippocampal synaptic plasticity, it results in some of the most detrimental changes in brain function started by ELS (Nishi, 2020). The reduced synaptic plasticity is typically conveyed by reduced synaptic proteins necessary for synaptic function. A study discovered that maternal separation and chronic restraint stress are associated with anxiety and cognitive function in adults, primarily through examination of behavioural changes and the analysis of the hippocampal expression. The same studies showed concern associated with behaviour and some mental deficiencies in mice. It is thus sufficient to gamble that exposure to early life stress resulted in reduced synaptic plasticity through the inhibition of some pathways in the hippocampus, which may have resulted in the vulnerability to stress levels and mental disorders during adulthood.

A study was conducted to show the effects of parental separation on children during world war two. Those separated from their parents showed the tendency for higher salivary cortisol and plasma in comparison to the groups that did not undergo separation. They also executed high salivary cortisol reactivity (Naeem, 2021). The women separated from their husbands showed a higher reference line in plasma cortisol, while men experienced higher reactivity in the stress levels test. The persons who experienced separation in early childhood showed higher effects to those detached as infants or the school-going ages.

Stress experienced during early life has detrimental short-term and lifelong effects on the human psychiatric and psychological system in the central nervous system and its peripherally. Bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress are only a few major psychiatric disorders associated with early life stress (Martín-Sánchez, 2022). Early life stress presents a complicated activity of figuring out the physiological adjustments such as the inflammatory changes, deregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, epigenetic changes, which has made it a challenge to identify biomarkers linked with physical and psychiatric disorders.

Glucocorticoids fuel nourishing reactions by aggregating the release of neuropeptides and preventing the release of corticotrophin hormone from the hypothalamus through the orexigenic effect of glucocorticoids can often be neutralized by leptin (Gupta & Mohanty, 2020). The amplified availability of glucocorticoids plays a character in modifying tissue insulin signalling by exacerbating phosphorylation. In faunas exposed to ELS, there is evidence of exacerbated availability of soft tissue glucocorticoids and, consequently, display a reduced exudation of insulin. This situation can result from consistent contact to a high vitality diet in later life.


The separation from parents during childhood can cause alterations in a person’s stress physiology far later in adulthood. Parents should try to create an environment that is safe for their children to reduce early life stress and therefore curb the effect of changing the HPA axis response to stress. Physical activities should be advocated for throughout a person’s life since it reduces the occurrence of unnecessary stressors in the life of an individual. Exercise also reduces the secretion of salivary cortisol reaction in stressful situations. Activating the HPA axis allows for an appropriate behavioural and brain response on a stressor, although this adaptation may change susceptibility to stress in later life. Further studies are required to determine the different responses to early stress by different genders.


de Abreu, M. S., Giacomini, A. C., Genario, R., Demin, K. A., Amstislavskaya, T. G., Costa, F., … & Kalueff, A. V. (2022). Understanding early-life pain and its effects on adult human and animal emotionality: Translational lessons from rodent and zebrafish models. Neuroscience Letters, 768, 136382.

Eachus, H., Choi, M. K., & Ryu, S. (2021). The effects of early life stress on the brain and behaviour: Insights from zebrafish models. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, 1209.

Galts, C. P., Bettio, L. E., Jewett, D. C., Yang, C. C., Brocardo, P. S., Rodrigues, A. L. S., … & Gil-Mohapel, J. (2019). Depression in neurodegenerative diseases: common mechanisms and current treatment options. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 102, 56-84.

Gupta, P., & Mohanty, B. (2020). Atypical antipsychotic drug modulates early life infection induced impairment of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: An age related study in mice. European journal of pharmacology, 872, 172978Lai, M. C., & Huang, L. T. (2011). Effects of early life stress on neuroendocrine and neurobehavior: mechanisms and implications. Pediatrics & neonatology, 52(3), 122-129.

Martín-Sánchez, A., González-Pardo, H., Alegre-Zurano, L., Castro-Zavala, A., López-Taboada, I., Valverde, O., & Conejo, N. M. (2022). Early-life stress induces emotional and molecular alterations in female mice that are partially reversed by cannabidiol. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 115, 110508.

Naeem, K., Al Kury, L. T., Nasar, F., Alattar, A., Alshaman, R., Shah, F. A., … & Li, S. (2021). Natural dietary supplement, carvacrol, alleviates LPS-induced oxidative stress, neurodegeneration, and depressive-like behaviors via the Nrf2/HO-1 pathway. Journal of Inflammation Research, 14, 1313.

Nishi, M. (2020). Effects of early-life stress on the brain and behaviors: implications of early maternal separation in rodents. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(19), 7212.

Ross, J. A., Gliebus, G., & Van Bockstaele, E. J. (2018). Stress-induced neural reorganization: a conceptual framework linking depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 85, 136-151.


Don't have time to write this essay on your own?
Use our essay writing service and save your time. We guarantee high quality, on-time delivery and 100% confidentiality. All our papers are written from scratch according to your instructions and are plagiarism free.
Place an order

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Need a plagiarism free essay written by an educator?
Order it today

Popular Essay Topics