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Why Glucocorticoids Might Affect Your Mental Health

Beth Bradford

Dec 26, 2022

Research shows that long-term use results in brain changes

Glucocorticoids are commonly used to treat a wide range of conditions such as asthma, inflammatory bowel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis. Glucocorticoids, also called corticosteroids, have a role in the regulation of inflammation, immunity, and hormone levels. Long-term use of these steroids has been linked to adverse consequences including hypertension, weight gain, and emotional swings. A 2022 study in BMJ Open suggests that glucocorticoids alter brain structure.

Researchers compared the brain health of more than 700 long-term glucocorticoid users with 24,000 non-users. Long-term glucocorticoid users were shown to have considerably less white matter in the brain. The brain's white matter is crucial for relaying messages between different parts of the brain (per Medical News Today).

The study also found differences in the brain depending on how glucocorticoids were administered. The caudate nucleus of those who took corticosteroids orally or had injections of corticosteroids had increased gray matter. The caudate nucleus is involved in the execution of our movements and is in charge of learning, motivation, and the feeling of reward (via the National Library of Medicine).

People who inhaled glucocorticoids also had a somewhat smaller amygdala, which is responsible for controlling our feelings (via Healthline). The study suggested that this change in brain matter could explain the side effects of glucocorticoids such as depression and mania. Participants in this study mentioned having problems with their mental health.

Cortisone, prednisone, triamcinolone, and budesonide are the most widely used glucocorticoids (via WebMD). These steroids are distinct from anabolic steroids, which are taken by some athletes to enhance their performance.

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