Childhood adversity is associated with physiologic dysregulation across multiple biological systems; however, relatively little is known about whether these changes are reversible with intervention. The objective of this review was to examine evidence for the effectiveness of interventions to promote healthy cortisol regulation in children. We selected articles from English-language publications in PubMed and EBSCO databases through 2012. Two independent reviewers assessed articles against eligibility criteria. Eligible studies were randomized controlled or quasi-experimental studies designed to improve relationships, environments, or psychosocial functioning in children and examined cortisol as an outcome. We identified 19 articles. There was substantial heterogeneity across studies with regard to age, selection criteria, intervention design, cortisol assessment, and follow-up duration. Eighteen of the 19 articles reported at least 1 difference in baseline cortisol, diurnal cortisol, or cortisol responsivity between intervention and control participants. Importantly, however, there was remarkable inconsistency with regard to how the interventions influenced cortisol. Therefore, studies that included a low-risk comparison group (n = 8) provided critical insight, and each found some evidence that postintervention cortisol levels in the intervention group approximated the low-risk comparison group and differed from children receiving usual care. In conclusion, existing studies show that cortisol activity can be altered by psychosocial interventions. These findings are promising, not only because they indicate physiologic plasticity that can be leveraged by interventions but also because they suggest it may be possible to repair regulatory systems after childhood adversity, which could inform strategies for reducing health disparities and promoting lasting improvements in health.
Keywords: adolescents; childhood adversity; children; cortisol; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; infants; life course; prevention; quasi-experimental study; randomized controlled trial; toxic stress.