Dangers of Stress and Cortisol

  • Introduction
  • Stress Adds to the Severity of Symptoms
  • Adrenal Affect
  • Helping Ourselves
  • Research
  • Management
  • Resources & References


Hopefully, you will have read the page about what happens to the injured brain. If you haven’t, it is advisable to back track.

To recap, as this understanding is fundamental, the symptoms you are struggling with come from one of two causes. The first cause is the physical damage that occurred at the moment of injury – such as bruising and shearing – known as the primary injury. Healing this neurological damage is different in many ways to how you can reduce the effects that occur as a result of the ‘secondary injury.’ To overcome the impairments caused by the primary injury, you will need to rewire and relearn skills.

The secondary outcomes, such as inflammation and cellular damage caused by the cascade of biochemical changes, can be reduced if quick action is taken to minimise cell death. We can need to rewire the brain from the effects of these outcomes too, but nutrition and supplements can help to reduce, and even reverse, the damage caused by the biochemical imbalance. There are new drugs available that have been designed to do precisely this.

Levels of damage can also be related to the general health and age of a person at the time of injury. No two brain injuries are the same.

Michael D. Lewis, MD, advocates that “The proper utilization of Omega-3 fatty acids and their nutritional potential to feed and cultivate the brain’s biochemical environment can facilitate the concussion healing process, relieve symptoms without pharmaceuticals, and increase the chance for a happy and healthy future.”

Many of the symptoms caused by the secondary outcomes can be alleviated by nutritional and supplementary means- we will get onto this.

Stress adds to the severity of symptoms

There are two kinds of stress going on in conscious patients immediately following head trauma. One is the anxiety and emotional stress caused by having been hurt and is reactional to our experiences. The second type of stress is the result of natural reactions of the brain. These automatic reactions will still be happening in unconscious patients.

Most of us understand that stress can be a necessary evil. We need the automatic response from the fight/flight mechanisms to make us able to ramp up our operating speeds and be able to make rapid decisions in times of threat or danger.

In normal circumstances, once the danger or threat has passed, the levels of adrenalin produced begin to return to their normal levels. However, when the brain is injured, this ‘on’ switch stays on, and inflammation can continue unabated. It is this inflammation that causes many of the common symptoms experienced following a brain injury.

Adrenal affect

The biochemical cascade that occurs immediately following a brain injury causes the adrenals to continuously fire due to the biological perception of stress and psychosomatic indicators (as above).
The adrenals become over-taxed and begin excreting so many stress hormones that the body begins to shut down, causing feelings of exhaustion.
The on-switch causing this constant firing creates a feedback loop in the body associated with the fight or flight response, which is also why PTSD and anxiety symptoms can continue unabated for years.

The adrenals are responsible for keeping cortisol and adrenaline in check as well as regulating inflammation in the body. This constant firing damages adrenal function, and many people become deficient in normal levels of cortisol, again exacerbating feelings of fatigue.

The continuance of these inflammatory responses and the more damage the kidney meridian experiences, the more our vital energy is depleted. In turn, this then causes further issues such as problems with the brain managing pain signals and also problems with hearing and hearing loss and the development of food allergies.

Fatigue following brain injury is also really well explained by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In TCM, kidney meridian health determines not only your vital life force (Qi energy) but also defends against chronic illness and the effects of ageing. Your kidney meridian stores ‘essential Qi,’ fuelling mitochondria health, cell renewal and metabolism – the process of turning nutrients into fuel or energy.

In TCM, the kidneys and adrenals are seen as a single organ or energy centre. Quantum science is helping us understand the source and flow of energy in line with eastern traditions dating back many thousands of years.

When the adrenals start to struggle, they no longer manufacture the right balance of hormones and initially release too much cortisol and adrenalin into the body.

To start with, tired adrenals cause people to feel wired and tired, so although healthy adrenals usually fire more in the morning, when they are fatigued, they will instead fire at night. This misfiring leads to insomnia and problems with getting the brain to be quiet when you go to bed.

When adrenal tiredness isn’t addressed, it can cause adrenal exhaustion. Following a brain injury, the body is full of cortisol much more often because of the effects of the biochemical cascade. This reaction can result in a boost of energy at night when you don’t need it and leaves people feeling sluggish and foggy-brained during the day.

People can not only have problems with getting to sleep but can also struggle with going back to sleep if they wake up during the night.

Adrenal exhaustion is a recognised second stage before reaching full adrenal burnout. Staying in a state of high cortisol eventually leads to cortisol levels starting to fail. Associated problems include weight gain, increased sleep problems and a recognition that something is affecting general health.

Full adrenal burnout leaves people feeling burned out. By this time, there is a disruption to cortisol patterns, and background levels of this hormone are way below average. Low levels of cortisol production are associated with a higher risk of thyroid and autoimmune disease and are also known to cause problems with the microbiome and absorption of nutrients.

This vicious circle can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, leading to panic attacks, so when people notice an escalation in their symptoms, these are very often associated with the depletions in vitamin B6 and iron caused by cortisol overload.

B vitamins, in general, are associated with better mental health and can help to minimise the risks of fatigue, anxiety, irritability, emotional instability, and even agoraphobia if people supplement with a multi-complex range of B vitamins in the early stages following a brain injury. This strategy will help to reduce symptoms at any stage post-injury. Speak to your doctor and ask for your blood to be checked. 

Helping ourselves

Tackling many of the symptoms caused by these secondary outcomes is something we can do a lot towards ourselves. One of the things we can do is reduce further stress as far as possible. Sometimes families can better manage and support this than the injured person can; being aware of the severe implications to health enables us to be far more proactive in tackling and dealing with stress.

Another thing to bear in mind is that historically, medical protocols and prescription medications have been aimed at treating symptoms rather than the cause of these symptoms. This practice is why so many people find that drugs either don’t work or that they cause unwanted side effects.

Doctors also tend to treat symptoms individually so that you would be prescribed one medication for persistent headaches, for example, and another for anxiety. The thing is that both of these, as an example, will be caused by the same thing.

What we are trying to do here is to help you treat the actual cause so that the symptoms abate. We have identified nutritional protocols and supplements that help reduce symptoms such as brain fog, headache and confusion. When we tackle the root causes, for example, inflammation, oxidative stress, and so on, all the indicators that were messaging us that something was wrong (the symptoms) are noticed as this – rather than as something that stands alone and has its’ own, or unknown, separate cause.

Making lifestyle changes

When we understand what cortisol can do to us, how it can exacerbate brain injury outcomes and symptoms, and the other health problems it can cause, we will want to tackle the problem straight away. When we notice our success, we will automatically make lifestyle changes.

A lack of understanding about this persistent inflammatory response is one of the reasons why brain injury outcomes and symptoms are so prolonged. On top of this, there has been a considerable sway of reliance on outdated ideas about brain injury. For example,  the degree to which people have believed that they have brain injury for life can lead folks to think that things will never improve and that they will never get their life back.

Again, this is very much down to the individual. With a brain injury, there is never a case that one size fits all, but when it comes to something like understanding the basic nutritional requirements of the brain, we can begin to understand how having an injury means we need to ramp up the quality of the food we eat.


There has been enough research about the effects stress and cortisol have on the body for much of the thinking to have entered general knowledge. Most of us are aware that stress contributes to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. What is sometimes unknown is that cortisol can also affect the immune system, gut-brain connectivity and health and can lead to adrenal burnout. These later issues affect brain health and contribute to, and exacerbate, brain injury outcomes and symptoms.

For those who are still struggling with fatigue and other common physical symptoms many years post-injury, it is highly likely that this is because of prolonged cortisol overload.

If you can get the inflammation under control, you can not only improve your cognitive functionality, but you can also get many other health issues under control. By using a range of techniques together, you can overcome and reverse the harmful impact cortisol has had on your recovery.

We believe that tackling this as part of a whole-body approach is the best way forward. It is best to think in terms of a permanent ‘fix’ rather than a ‘quick fix’ – however, by immediately incorporating supplements and improving your levels of nutrition, you should have noticeable results quickly enough that you don’t become disillusioned. Keep working through the menus – we will bring you to it.


Research shows the best supplements that help with this are neuroprotective agents such as medical-grade black seed oil and omega-3 fish oils.

Eating for nutrition also helps us to tackle the causes of many of the other common symptoms of brain injury at their root.

Incorporate a whole-body approach and think about all bodily systems, and bringing them all back to health together. The cascade and over-production of harmful biochemicals, notably cortisol and adrenalin, can impact gut flora, deplete the immune system, and can cause adrenal fatigue compounding the problems faced.

You can learn more about all of these, including alternative treatments, in our ‘Positive Health’ section.

You can make real changes yourself, and depending on whether you have other health problems, the length of time your sleep problems have been going on, and other factors, you may see results fairly quickly.

A boost with a quality vitamin B complex, specifically B6 and B12, can also really help. Your doctor should be able to prescribe supplements for you. Be wary of the ingredients and quality. Pharmacological vitamins and minerals are often chemically based substitutes.  Many medications are designed to help people overcome other problems and aren’t intended to tackle the changes in physiology that follow a brain injury, which is why they often don’t work and also often cause intolerable side effects.

Speak to your doctor. Get your blood tested and ask for help without medication. If you can, find a functional doctor who will focus on looking at your broad-spectrum health issues. 


Mayo Clinic– Stress management


Psychology Today – Chronic Stress can damage brain structure and connectivity

NCBI – Stress Reactivity after TBI – Implications for Comorbid PTSD

Harvard Health – Understanding the Stress Response

National Library of Medicine – Brain Trauma, Glucocorticoids and Neuroinflammation: Dangerous Liaisons for the Hippocampus

PubMed – Diffuse traumatic brain injury affects chronic corticosterone function in the rat