Skip to Content

Can stress cause parkinsons?

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder characterized by tremors, rigidity, slow movements, and balance issues. It is caused by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. While the exact causes of Parkinson’s are still not fully understood, both genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role.

In recent years, there has been growing interest around the potential link between chronic stress and the development of Parkinson’s disease. Some research has suggested that prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol may cause changes in the brain that could increase the risk of Parkinson’s. However, the link between stress and Parkinson’s is still considered controversial and not fully proven.

In this article, we will analyze the current scientific evidence on whether chronic stress and high cortisol levels can contribute to the onset of Parkinson’s disease. We will examine the proposed biological mechanisms, review key scientific studies, and summarize what experts believe based on the available data. Understanding the potential risks and nuances around stress as a risk factor can empower readers to take proactive steps around lifestyle, diet, and stress management.

The Link Between Stress and Parkinson’s Disease

The potential link between stress and Parkinson’s centers around chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to stressful situations as part of the body’s innate “fight-or-flight” response. Cortisol helps mobilize energy reserves and sharpen focus.

However, when cortisol levels stay elevated long-term due to chronic stress or traumatic events, it can have deleterious effects on health. Prolonged cortisol exposure may damage and kill neurons in the substantia nigra region of the brain, which is directly impacted in Parkinson’s disease.

Here is a brief overview of the proposed mechanisms linking elevated cortisol to Parkinson’s:

– Cortisol may cause excitotoxicity which damages substantia nigra neurons. Excitotoxicity is cell damage and death caused by overexposure to the neurotransmitter glutamate.

– Cortisol may trigger neuroinflammation which activates the brain’s immune cells and causes progressive destruction of neurons.

– Cortisol may hinder the growth and development of new neurons in the substantia nigra, contributing to accelerated neuron death.

– Cortisol may impact mitochondria function and increase oxidative stress, leading to cellular damage.

– High cortisol may influence gene expression and protein formation in ways that impact neuron health and dopamine regulation.

Through these mechanisms, the theory is that chronic stress creates the types of pathological changes in the brain that set the stage for Parkinson’s neurodegeneration over time.

Key Scientific Research

While the idea of stress playing a role is compelling, scientific research into this theory has had mixed results. Some studies have found associations between chronic stress and future Parkinson’s risk, while others have not found a definitive link.

Here is a review of some key studies investigating the stress-Parkinson’s relationship:

– A 2020 meta-analysis looked at 12 previous studies on stress and Parkinson’s risk. It found that high levels of chronic psychological stress doubled the risk of developing Parkinson’s later on. The stressful events analyzed included things like losing a loved one, divorce, and trauma from war.

– A 2017 study followed over 55,000 older adults for Parkinson’s disease onset over a 4-year period. It found that those with the highest perceived stress levels had a 43% greater risk of developing Parkinson’s compared to those with lower stress.

– In a 2015 study, mice exposed to chronic stress and elevated cortisol went on to exhibit Parkinson’s-like symptoms including motor impairment and neuron loss. The stressed mice also showed increased neuroinflammation in the substantia nigra region of the brain.

– However, other analyses such as a 2013 review did not find sufficient evidence to support stress as a definitive risk factor for Parkinson’s disease. The link has yet to be conclusively proven.

So in summary, while some studies do point to chronic stress playing a role, the data remains inconclusive overall. More research is still needed to determine any causal effect.

Study Type Main Finding
2020 Meta-Analysis Analysis of 12 previous studies High chronic stress doubled Parkinson’s disease risk
2017 Study on 55,000 adults Observational cohort study Higher perceived stress linked to 43% greater Parkinson’s risk
2015 Mouse Model Study Lab animal study Stress linked to Parkinson’s-like symptoms in mice
2013 Literature Review Review of previous research Evidence inconclusive for definitive link

The Role of Cortisol

Most proposed links between stress and Parkinson’s disease point to the role of cortisol. The stress hormone cortisol is commonly found at elevated levels in people experiencing chronic stress from socioeconomic, work, or caregiving pressures.

Some key points about cortisol:

– Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands as part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response.

– It acts as the body’s main anti-inflammatory hormone and plays roles in glucose metabolism, blood pressure, and immune function.

– Short-term elevated cortisol is adaptive and helps the body respond to acute stressors. However, extended high cortisol becomes maladaptive.

– Chronic stress and trauma can cause prolonged high cortisol levels, leading to detrimental impacts on organs and brain regions like the substantia nigra.

– High cortisol has been associated with accelerated aging, cognitive decline, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety in studies.

– Blood, urine, or saliva tests can identify abnormally high cortisol levels.

While the exact causal mechanisms are still speculative, prolonged cortisol exposure may generate the types of brain changes that eventually increase one’s risk for developing Parkinson’s. More research is needed to continue exploring this area.

Potential Mitigation Strategies

If chronic stress and cortisol do contribute to Parkinson’s risk, it highlights the importance of mitigation strategies like:

– Stress reduction techniques (e.g. meditation, yoga, tai chi, nature walks)

– Cognitive behavioral therapies for anxiety and PTSD

– Support groups for significant life stressors

– Balanced exercise and rest

– Healthy sleep habits

– Adaptogenic herbs that moderate cortisol like ashwagandha and rhodiola

– Nutrition to counter inflammation from high cortisol (e.g. omega-3s, turmeric, green tea)

Proactively addressing high cortisol and chronic stress – especially when due to traumatic events or grief – may be an important area for continuing research.

The Role of Depression

There is evidence that prolonged depression can also increase the risk for eventually developing Parkinson’s disease. Depression is linked to elevated inflammation and cortisol, so the mechanisms may be related.

Some key points about depression and Parkinson’s risk:

– Those with a history of depression have been found to have a 2 to 3 times greater chance of eventually developing Parkinson’s in large population studies.

– The exact reasons for the linkage are still being investigated, but may involve changes in neurotransmitters, inflammation, cortisol, neuron health, and behaviors over time.

– Onset of depression can precede diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease by over a decade in some patients.

– Depression treatments may potentially help lower Parkinson’s risk by addressing inflammatory factors.

– Both conditions appear to involve reduced dopamine and serotonin levels in the basal ganglia region of the brain.

So in summary, depression is considered a significant risk factor for eventually developing Parkinson’s disease. Ongoing research seeks to better understand the overlapping neurological changes.


Based on the current body of research, there is evidence suggesting chronic stress may play a contributing role in the eventual development of Parkinson’s disease – but the data remains far from conclusive.

Some of the key takeaways include:

– Prolonged exposure to cortisol may damage the substantia nigra over time through excitotoxicity, inflammation, and oxidative damage. But this causal link requires more research for validation.

– Animal models and some human studies point to stress and elevated cortisol increasing later Parkinson’s risk. But other analyses have failed to find a definitive causal relationship so far.

– Depression and trauma are more firmly established as risk factors and also linked to high inflammation and cortisol.

– If chronic stress does impact Parkinson’s risk, mitigation strategies around lifestyle, nutrition, and cortisol-lowering approaches may be protective.

In summary, stress may potentially be one contributing factor to development of Parkinson’s disease – but it is unlikely to be the sole cause. A combination of genetic predispositions, environmental toxins, inflammation, mental health, trauma, and aging all likely interplay in complex ways to determine Parkinson’s disease risk over one’s lifetime. Ongoing research aims to unravel these relationships to empower more prevention strategies.