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1.  Salivary Cortisol and DHEA Levels in the Korean Population: Age-Related Differences, Diurnal Rhythm, and Correlations with Serum Levels  
Yonsei Medical Journal  2007;48(3):379-388.
The primary objective of this study was to examine the changes of basal cortisol and DHEA levels present in saliva and serum with age, and to determine the correlation coefficients of steroid concentrations between saliva and serum. The secondary objective was to obtain a standard diurnal rhythm of salivary cortisol and DHEA in the Korean population.
Materials and Methods
For the first objective, saliva and blood samples were collected between 10 and 11 AM from 359 volunteers ranging from 21 to 69 years old (167 men and 192 women). For the second objective, four saliva samples (post-awakening, 11AM, 4PM, and bedtime) were collected throughout a day from 78 volunteers (42 women and 36 men) ranging from 20 to 40 years old. Cortisol and DHEA levels were measured using a radioimmunoassay (RIA).
The morning cortisol and DHEA levels, and the age-related steroid decline patterns were similar in both genders. Serum cortisol levels significantly decreased around forty years of age (p < 0.001, when compared with people in their 20s), and linear regression analysis with age showed a significant declining pattern (slope = -2.29, t = -4.297, p < 0.001). However, salivary cortisol levels did not change significantly with age, but showed a tendency towards decline (slope = -0.0078, t = -0.389, p = 0.697). The relative cortisol ratio of serum to saliva was 3.4-4.5% and the ratio increased with age (slope = 0.051, t = 3.61, p < 0.001). DHEA levels also declined with age in saliva (slope = -0.007, t = -3.76, p < 0.001) and serum (slope = -0.197 t = -4.88, p < 0.001). In particular, DHEA levels in saliva and serum did not start to significantly decrease until ages in the 40s, but then decreased significantly further at ages in the 50s (p < 0.001, when compared with the 40s age group) and 60s (p < 0.001, when compared with the 50 age group). The relative DHEA ratio of serum to saliva was similar throughout the ages examined (slop = 0.0016, t = 0.344, p = 0.73). On the other hand, cortisol and DHEA levels in saliva reflected well those in serum (r = 0.59 and 0.86, respectively, p < 0.001). The highest salivary cortisol levels appeared just after awakening (about two fold higher than the 11 AM level), decreased throughout the day, and reached the lowest levels at bedtime (p < 0.001, when compared with PM cortisol levels). The highest salivary DHEA levels also appeared after awakening (about 1.5 fold higher than the 11AM level) and decreased by 11AM (p < 0.001). DHEA levels did not decrease further until bedtime (p = 0.11, when compared with PM DHEA levels).
This study showed that cortisol and DHEA levels change with age and that the negative slope of DHEA was steeper than that of cortisol in saliva and serum. As the cortisol and DHEA levels in saliva reflected those in serum, the measurement of steroid levels in saliva provide a useful and practical tool to evaluate adrenal functions, which are essential for clinical diagnosis.
PMCID: PMC2628086  PMID: 17594144
Saliva cortisol; saliva DHEA; correlation; age-related changes; diurnal rhythm
2.  Daytime Trajectories of Cortisol: Demographic and Socioeconomic Differences. Findings from The National Study of Daily Experiences 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2013;38(11):10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.06.010.
Cortisol's daytime rhythm is thought to be altered by aging and by exposure to chronic stress. However, measurement of an individual's usual cortisol rhythm is hampered by the effects of acute stressors, by differences between working days and weekends, by between-day variation in waking time and sleep duration, by variability in cortisol sampling times, and by possible variability in the timing of cortisol peak and nadir. Therefore, to determine differences in the usual daytime cortisol rhythm by age, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity, we measured salivary cortisol levels at four time-points, repeated over four days that included both weekdays and weekend days, in 1,693 men and women from a national sample, and used three alternate growth curve specifications for the underlying cortisol rhythm (linear spline, quadratic spline, piece-wise linear-cubic) in order to minimize the impact of sample timing and other methodological issues. Model-predicted mean values of (and demographic and socioeconomic differences in) cortisol peak, nadir, and area under the curve (AUC) were nearly identical across model specifications. Older age and male gender were independently associated with higher cortisol peak, nadir, and AUC. Low education and minority race/ethnicity status were independently associated with lower cortisol peak and higher nadir, but were not associated with AUC. We also found significant cortisol peak and AUC associations with waking time, sleep duration, and workday vs. weekend day status, suggesting the importance of measuring these confounders and of collecting cortisol measurements over multiple days in research studies. We conclude that daytime cortisol levels are higher in older age and in men compared to women, and that the daytime cortisol rhythm is flatter (more blunted) in less privileged segments of society. Flattening of daytime cortisol rhythms may represent one mechanism by which social stressors lead to poor health outcomes.
PMCID: PMC3812359  PMID: 23831263
Cortisol diurnal rhythm; socioeconomic status; age; gender; race; spline regression; cortisol peak; cortisol nadir; cortisol area under the curve
3.  Blunted Nocturnal Cortisol Rise is Associated With Higher Carotid Artery Intima-Media Thickness (CIMT) in Overweight African American and Latino Youth 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2013;38(9):1658-1667.
Blunted diurnal cortisol variation has been associated with overt cardiovascular disease in adults. The relationship between the diurnal cortisol variation and subclinical atherosclerosis in youth has yet to be investigated. The objectives of this study were to: 1) determine the relationship between overnight cortisol measures and CIMT in overweight and obese, African-American and Latino children; 2) assess ethnic differences in these relationships and 3) explore whether overnight cortisol and CIMT relationships were independent of inflammatory markers, C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α).
One hundred and fifty-six overweight and obese African-American and Latino children (ages 8–17, 86M/70F, 55 African-American /101 Latino) underwent measures of CIMT by B-mode ultrasound, nocturnal cortisol rise (NCR=salivary cortisol rise from 2200hrs to awakening at 0530hrs), cortisol awakening response (CAR=salivary cortisol from time of awakening to 30 min later), fasting serum cortisol and overnight urinary free cortisol.
Using linear regression, salivary cortisol0530hrs and NCR were negatively associated with CIMT (βstandardized = −0.215 and −0.220, p<0.01) independent of age, height, percent body fat, ethnicity and systolic blood pressure. Nocturnal salivary cortisol2200hrs, morning serum cortisol, and overnight urinary free cortisol were not associated with CIMT. Using ANCOVA, participants with LOW NCR (NCR <0.44µg/dL, n=52) had significantly greater CIMT than those with HIGH NCR (NCR ≥0.91 µg/dL, n=52; 0.632±0.008 vs. 0.603±0.008mm p=0.01) after controlling for covariates. Ethnicity was independently associated with CIMT, whereby African-American children had greater CIMT than Latino children (−0.028±0.009, p=0.006). The relationships between cortisol measures and CIMT did not differ between the two ethnic groups (all pinteraction=0.28–0.97). CRP, IL-6 and TNF-α were not associated with CIMT (p>0.05). IL-6 was inversely related to NCR (r=−0.186, p=0.03), but it did not explain the relationship between NCR and CIMT.
Salivary cortisol0530hrs and NCR, but not CAR, nocturnal salivary cortisol 2200hrs, morning serum cortisol or overnight urinary free cortisol, were associated with CIMT, independent of relevant covariates, including inflammatory factors. A low awakening salivary cortisol or a blunted NCR may be related to increased atherosclerosis risk in overweight and obese minority youth. These findings support adult studies suggesting flattened daytime diurnal cortisol variation impacts cardiovascular disease risk.
PMCID: PMC3722251  PMID: 23433749
Obesity; cardiovascular risk; carotid artery; intima media thickness; cortisol
4.  Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress axis function and the relationship with chronic widespread pain and its antecedents 
Arthritis Research & Therapy  2005;7(5):R992-R1000.
In clinic studies, altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function has been associated with fibromyalgia, a syndrome characterised by chronic widespread body pain. These results may be explained by the associated high rates of psychological distress and somatisation. We address the hypothesis that the latter, rather than the pain, might explain the HPA results. A population study ascertained pain and psychological status in subjects aged 25 to 65 years. Random samples were selected from the following three groups: satisfying criteria for chronic widespread pain; free of chronic widespread pain but with strong evidence of somatisation ('at risk'); and a reference group. HPA axis function was assessed from measuring early morning and evening salivary cortisol levels, and serum cortisol after physical (pain pressure threshold exam) and chemical (overnight 0.25 mg dexamethasone suppression test) stressors. The relationship between HPA function with pain and the various psychosocial scales assessed was modelled using appropriate regression analyses, adjusted for age and gender. In all 131 persons with chronic widespread pain (participation rate 74%), 267 'at risk' (58%) and 56 controls (70%) were studied. Those in the chronic widespread pain and 'at risk' groups were, respectively, 3.1 (95% CI (1.3, 7.3)) and 1.8 (0.8, 4.0) times more likely to have a saliva cortisol score in the lowest third. None of the psychosocial factors measured were, however, associated with saliva cortisol scores. Further, those in the chronic widespread pain (1.9 (0.8, 4.7)) and 'at risk' (1.6 (0.7, 3.6)) groups were also more likely to have the highest serum cortisol scores. High post-stress serum cortisol was related to high levels of psychological distress (p = 0.05, 95% CI (0.02, 0.08)). After adjusting for levels of psychological distress, the association between chronic widespread pain and post-stress cortisol scores remained, albeit slightly attenuated. This is the first population study to demonstrate that those with established, and those psychologically at risk of, chronic widespread pain demonstrate abnormalities of HPA axis function, which are more marked in the former group. Although some aspects of the altered function are related to the psychosocial factors measured, we conclude that the occurrence of HPA abnormality in persons with chronic widespread pain is not fully explained by the accompanying psychological stress.
PMCID: PMC1257426  PMID: 16207340
5.  Prospective Association of Morning Salivary Cortisol with Depressive Symptoms in Mid-Life: A Life-Course Study  
PLoS ONE  2013;8(11):e77603.
Associations of cortisol and depression vary at different life-stages, yet population-based, prospective studies are scarce. We aimed to assess associations of morning cortisol with depressive symptoms in mid-life taking account of lifetime psychological health.
Participants were 5,403 men and women from the 1958 British Birth Cohort whose salivary cortisol was assessed at 45y (45min after waking (T1) and 3h later (T2)) and who completed the 5-item Mental-Health Index (MHI-5) about depressive symptoms at age 50y. Lifetime psychological health was identified from child and adult measures.
For women, higher T2 cortisol at 45y predicted depression (MHI-5 scores ≤52) at 50y (odds ratio [OR]=1.17; 95% confidence intervals [CI] 1.05,1.30 per standard deviation increase in T2 cortisol), attenuating when adjusted for current (45y) and previous (7-42y) psychological health (OR=1.11; 95% CI 0.98, 1.24). Similarly, an association in women of flatter cortisol delta (T2-T1) with depressive symptoms at 50y weakened after adjustment for current (45y) and previous (7-42y) psychological health. For men, lower T2 cortisol at 45y predicted greater depressive symptoms at 50y and the association strengthened when adjusted for lifetime psychological health. Likewise, lower cortisol AUC predicted higher risk of depression for men after adjusting for prior psychological health (OR=0.85; CI 0.72, 1.00). Associations were largely unaltered by control for covariates.
In women, higher cortisol in late morning at 45y is prospectively associated with depressive symptoms at 50y through a link with lifetime psychological health. In men, lower cortisol predicts subsequent symptoms, independent of depressive history.
PMCID: PMC3827055  PMID: 24265676
6.  Short- and long-term effects of tactile massage on salivary cortisol concentrations in Parkinson’s disease: a randomised controlled pilot study 
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder with limited knowledge about the normal function and effects of non-pharmacological therapies on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The aim of the study was to analyse the basal diurnal and total secretion of salivary cortisol in short- and long-term aspects of tactile massage (TM).
Design: Prospective, Controlled and Randomised Multicentre Trial.
Setting and interventions: Forty-five women and men, aged 50–79 years, were recruited. Twenty-nine of them were blindly randomised to tactile massage (TM) and 16 of them to the control group, rest to music (RTM). Ten interventions were given during 8 weeks followed by a 26 weeks of follow up. Salivary cortisol was collected at 8 am, 1 pm, 8 pm, and 8 am the next day, on five occasions. With the first and eighth interventions, it was collected immediately before and after intervention.
Main outcome measures: The primary aim was to assess and compare cortisol concentrations before and immediately after intervention and also during the follow-up period. The secondary aim was to assess the impact of age, gender, body mass index (BMI), duration and severity of PD, effects of interventional time-point of the day, and levodopa doses on cortisol concentration.
The median cortisol concentrations for all participants were 16.0, 5.8, 2.8, and 14.0 nmol/L at baseline, later reproduced four times without significant differences. Cortisol concentrations decreased significantly after TM intervention but no change in diurnal salivary cortisol pattern was found. The findings of reduced salivary cortisol concentrations immediately after the interventions are in agreement with previous studies. However, there was no significant difference between the TM and control groups. There were no significant correlations between cortisol concentrations and age, gender, BMI, time-point for intervention, time interval between anti-parkinson pharmacy intake and sampling, levodopa doses, duration, or severity of PD.
Diurnal salivary cortisol rhythm was normal. Salivary cortisol concentrations were significantly reduced after the TM intervention and after RTM, but there were no significant differences between the groups and no sustained long-term effect. No associations were seen between salivary cortisol concentration and clinical and/or pharmacological characteristics.
Trial registration, NCT01734876 and FoU Sweden 108881.
PMCID: PMC3878723  PMID: 24330473
Circadian rhythm; Complementary therapies; Cortisol; Massage; Parkinson disease; Stress
7.  Salivary cortisol among American Indians with and without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Gender and alcohol influences 
Brain, behavior, and immunity  2008;23(5):658-662.
Disruptions in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal regulation and immunity have been associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We examined the association of PTSD with diurnal rhythms in salivary cortisol in a convenience sample from a population-based study of male and female American Indians. Subjects with and without PTSD were identified from American Indians living on/near a Northern Plains reservation as part of a larger study. Over two days diurnal saliva samples were collected by staff at the University of Colorado Denver Clinical Research Center at waking, 30 minutes after waking, before lunch, and before dinner. Generalized estimating equations linear regression models investigated the influence of PTSD on cortisol over time. The association of a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD with salivary cortisol level was assessed in subjects with complete data (PTSD: n=27; no PTSD n=32) for age, gender, and alcohol consumption in the past month. Subject mean age was 44 years, and 71% were women. When stratified by gender, women with a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD had significantly higher mean cortisol levels throughout the day than women without PTSD (p = 0.01); but there was no significant association between PTSD and cortisol levels in men (p = 0.36). The cortisol awakening response – the difference in cortisol levels from waking to 30 minutes after waking – was not associated with PTSD in men or women. A lifetime diagnosis of PTSD may influence diurnal cortisol among American Indian women. These effects were independent of influences of current alcohol use/abuse. The unexpected elevation in cortisol in American Indian women with a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD may reflect acute anxiety associated with experiencing a number of novel tests in a strange location (e.g., cardiac imaging, medical and dental exams, etc.), or concurrent depression.
PMCID: PMC2711684  PMID: 19146946
Health disparities; Northern Plains Indians; cortisol awakening response
8.  Diurnal Salivary Cortisol is Associated With Body Mass Index and Waist Circumference: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis 
Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)  2013;21(1):E56-E63.
Neuroendocrine abnormalities, such as activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, are associated with obesity; however, few large-scale population-based studies have examined HPA axis and markers of obesity. We examined the cross-sectional association of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and diurnal salivary cortisol curve with obesity. The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) Stress Study includes 1,002 White, Hispanic, and Black men and women (mean age 65±9.8 years) who collected up to 18 salivary cortisol samples over 3 days. Cortisol profiles were modeled using regression spline models that incorporated random parameters for subject-specific effects. Cortisol curve measures included awakening cortisol, CAR (awakening to 30 minutes post-awakening), early decline (30 minutes to 2 hours post-awakening), late decline (2 hours post-awakening to bedtime), and the corresponding areas under the curve (AUC). Body-mass-index (BMI) and waist circumference (WC) were used to estimate adiposity. For the entire cohort, both BMI and WC were negatively correlated with awakening cortisol (p<0.05), AUC during awakening rise and early decline and positively correlated to the early decline slope (p<0.05) after adjustments for age, race/ethnicity, gender, diabetes status, socioeconomic status, beta blockers, steroids, hormone replacement therapy and smoking status. No heterogeneities of effects were observed by gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Higher BMI and WC are associated with neuroendocrine dysregulation, which is present in a large population sample, and only partially explained by other covariates.
PMCID: PMC3602310  PMID: 23404865
adiposity; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; salivary cortisol; diurnal cortisol; cortisol awakening response; epidemiology; obesity; body mass index; waist circumference; epidemiology
9.  Sex Differences in the Association Between Cortisol Concentrations and Laboratory Pain Responses in Healthy Children 
Gender medicine  2009;6(Suppl 2):193-207.
Research in adult populations has highlighted sex differences in cortisol concentrations and laboratory pain responses, with men exhibiting higher cortisol concentrations and reduced pain responses compared with women. Yet, less is known about the relationship of cortisol concentrations to pain in children.
This study examined associations between sex, cortisol, and pain responses to laboratory pain tasks in children.
Salivary cortisol samples from subjects aged 8 to 18 years were obtained at baseline after entering the laboratory (SCb), after the completion of all pain tasks (SC1), and at the end of the session (SC2), 20 minutes later. Blood cortisol samples were also taken after completion of the pain tasks (BC1) and at the end of the session (BC2), 20 minutes later. Subjects completed 3 counterbalanced laboratory pain tasks: pressure, heat, and cold pressor tasks. Pain measures included pain tolerance, and self-reported pain intensity and unpleasantness for all 3 tasks.
The study included 235 healthy children and adolescents (119 boys, 116 girls; mean age, 12.7 years; range, 8–18 years; 109 [46.4%] were in early puberty; 94 [40.0%] white). Salivary and blood cortisol levels were highly correlated with each other. Salivary cortisol levels for the total sample and for boys and girls declined significantly from SCb to SC1 (P < 0.01), although there were no significant changes from SC1 to SC2. No significant sex differences in salivary or blood cortisol levels were evident at any assessment point. Separate examination of the cortisol–laboratory pain response relationships by sex (controlling for age and time of day) suggested different sex-specific patterns. Higher cortisol levels were associated with lower pain reactivity (ie, increased pressure tolerance) among boys compared with girls at SC1, SC2, and BC1 (SC1: r = 0.338, P = 0.003; SC2: r = 0.271, P = 0.020; and BC1: r = 0.261, P = 0.026). However, higher cortisol levels were related to higher pain response (ie, increased cold intensity [BC2: r = 0.229, P = 0.048] and unpleasantness [BC1: r = 0.237, P = 0.041]) in girls compared with boys.
These findings suggest important sex differences in cortisol–pain relationships in children and adolescents. Cortisol levels were positively associated with increased pain tolerance in boys and increased pain sensitivity in girls.
PMCID: PMC3486740  PMID: 19406369
pain; children; cortisol; sex differences
10.  Cortisol, obesity and the metabolic syndrome: A cross-sectional study of obese subjects and review of the literature 
Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)  2013;21(1):E105-E117.
Circulating cortisol and psychosocial stress may contribute to the pathogenesis of obesity and metabolic syndrome. To evaluate these relationships, we performed a cross-sectional study of 369 overweight and obese subjects and 60 healthy volunteers and reviewed the previous literature.
Overweight and obese subjects had at least two other features of Cushing’s syndrome. They underwent measurements representing cortisol dynamics (24h urine cortisol excretion (UFC), bedtime salivary cortisol, 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test) and metabolic parameters (BMI, blood pressure (BP); fasting serum triglycerides, HDL, insulin, and glucose). Subjects also completed the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). UFC, salivary cortisol and weight from 60 healthy volunteers were analyzed.
No subject had Cushing’s syndrome. UFC and dexamethasone responses were not associated with BMI or weight. However, salivary cortisol showed a trend to increase as BMI increased (P< 0.0001), and correlated with waist circumference (WC) in men (rs=0.28, P=0.02) and systolic BP in women (rs=0.24, P =0.0008). Post-dexamethasone cortisol levels were weak to moderately correlated with fasting insulin (rs=− 0.31, P=0.01) and HOMA-IR (rs=−0.31, P=0.01) in men and systolic (rs=0.18, P= 0.02) and diastolic BP (rs=0.20, P=0.009) in women. PSS results were higher in obese subjects than controls, but were not associated with cortisol or metabolic parameters. As expected, WC correlated with fasting insulin, HOMA-IR and systolic BP (adjusted for BMI and gender; P < 0.01). Literature showed inconsistent relationships between cortisol and metabolic parameters.
Taken together, these data do not support a strong relationship between systemic cortisol or stress and obesity or metabolic syndrome.
PMCID: PMC3602916  PMID: 23505190
cortisol; metabolic syndrome; insulin resistance; obesity
11.  Maternal history of child abuse moderates the association between daily stress and diurnal cortisol in pregnancy: A pilot study 
Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands)  2013;16(6):706-710.
Previous research on the association between maternal daily stress and cortisol in pregnancy has yielded inconsistent findings. However, past studies have not considered whether stressful experiences in childhood impact maternal cortisol regulation in pregnancy. In this pilot study we aimed to examine whether the association between maternal daily stress and cortisol differed according to maternal history of child abuse. Forty-one women provided salivary cortisol samples at wake-up, 30 minutes after wake-up, and bedtime for 3 days at 3 times over second and third trimesters of pregnancy. On each day of cortisol collection women reported their daily stress. Women reported child abuse experiences prior to age 18 by completing 15 items from the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale. Twenty-one percent (N=9) of women reported a history of child sexual abuse (CSA), 44% (N=18) reported a history of non-sexual child abuse, and 34% (N=14) reported no history of child abuse. Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) analyses revealed that stress in the day prior was associated with increases in morning cortisol in women with CSA histories compared to women with non-sexual abuse histories or no history of child abuse. Increases in evening cortisol were associated with increases in daily stress in women with CSA histories compared to women with non-sexual abuse histories or no history of child abuse. Results reveal a dynamic association between daily stress and cortisol in pregnancy and suggest that patterns differ according to maternal child abuse history.
PMCID: PMC4064530  PMID: 23863127
Daily stress; pregnancy; cortisol; child sexual abuse; diurnal; child maltreatment
12.  Genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in cortisol level and circadian rhythm in middle childhood 
Hormones and Behavior  2012;62(1):36-42.
Individuals differ widely in cortisol output over the day, but the etiology of these individual differences remains poorly understood. Twin studies are useful for quantifying genetic and environmental influences on variation in cortisol output, lending insight into underlying influences on the components of Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis functioning.
Salivary cortisol was assayed on 446 twin pairs (157 monozygotic, 289 dizygotic; ages 7–8). Parents helped youth collect saliva 30 min after waking, mid-afternoon, and 30 minutes prior to bedtime across 3 consecutive days. We used hierarchical linear modeling to extract predicted cortisol levels and to distinguish cortisol’s diurnal rhythm using a slopes-as-outcome piecewise growth curve model; two slopes captured the morning-to-afternoon and afternoon-to-evening rhythm, respectively. Separate genetic models were then fit to cortisol level at waking, mid-afternoon, and evening as well as the diurnal rhythm across morning-to-afternoon and afternoon-to-evening hours.
Three results from these analyses are striking. First, morning-to-afternoon cortisol level showed the highest additive genetic variance (heritability), consistent with prior research. Second, cortisol’s diurnal rhythm had an additive genetic component, particularly across the morning-to-afternoon hours. In contrast, additive genetic variation did not significantly contribute to variation in afternoon-to-evening slope. Third, the majority of variance in cortisol concentration was associated with shared family environments. In summary, both genetic and environmental factors influence cortisol’s circadian rhythm, and they do so differentially across the day.
PMCID: PMC3377812  PMID: 22583671
HPA axis; cortisol; diurnal rhythm; twins; behavior genetics
13.  Associations between DSM-IV diagnosis, psychiatric symptoms and morning cortisol levels in a community sample of adolescents 
Dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis (HPA-axis) is implicated in a variety of psychiatric and emotional disorders. In this study, we explore the association between HPA-axis functioning, as measured by morning cortisol, and common psychiatric disorders and symptoms among a community sample of adolescents.
Data from a cross-sectional school-based survey of 501 school pupils, aged 15, were used to establish the strength of association between salivary morning cortisol and both diagnosis of psychiatric disorders and a number of psychiatric symptoms, as measured via a computerised psychiatric interview. Analysis, conducted separately by gender, used multiple regressions, adjusting for relevant confounders.
With one exception (a positive association between conduct disorder symptoms and cortisol among females) there was no association between morning cortisol and psychiatric diagnosis or symptoms. However, there was a significant two-way interaction between gender and conduct symptoms, with females showing a positive and males a negative association between cortisol and conduct symptoms. A further three-way interaction showed that while the association between cortisol and conduct symptoms was negative among males with a few mood disorder symptoms, among females with many mood symptoms it was positive.
Except in relation to conduct symptoms, dysregulation of morning cortisol levels seems unrelated to any psychiatric disorder or symptoms. However, the relationship between cortisol and conduct symptoms is moderated by both gender and mood symptoms. Findings are compatible with the recent work suggesting research should concentrate on the moderated associations between gender, internalising and externalising symptoms and cortisol, rather than any simple relationship.
PMCID: PMC3328669  PMID: 21476012
Morning cortisol; Stress; DSM-IV; Psychiatric diagnosis; Psychiatric symptoms; Adolescents
14.  Urinary cortisol and depression in early pregnancy: role of adiposity and race 
Depression before and during pregnancy is associated with adverse birth outcomes including low birth weight and preterm birth. Abnormal maternal cortisol has been hypothesized as one mediator between depression and adverse birth outcomes. The relationship between cortisol and depression in pregnancy is exhibited most strongly in the African American population, and most studies have focused either on circulating or placental levels of cortisol. The utility of urinary cortisol in early pregnancy related to depression and adiposity has not been investigated.
Twenty-five pregnant African American women identified by the Edinburgh Depression Scale as having depression were investigated and matched by body mass index (BMI), age, race, and infant birth weight centile to non-depressed subjects. Maternal urine and plasma cortisol in early pregnancy were quantified and investigated in relation to depression and adiposity.
Morning urine cortisol levels tracked positively with plasma cortisol (r2 = 0.25, p < 0.001). However, no differences were observed in either urinary or plasma cortisol between depressed and non-depressed pregnant women. Plasma cortisol was significantly negatively associated with several measures of maternal adiposity including percent body fat (r2 = −0.10, p < 0.05), however this relationship was present only in the non-depressed women. In a post-hoc analysis, non-depressed non-obese women were found to have significantly higher cortisol levels compared to women with depression, obesity or both (p < 0.05).
Depressed pregnant women and non-depressed obese pregnant women evidence atypical cortisol levels compared to non-depressed non-obese pregnant women. Plasma cortisol in early pregnancy is negatively associated with measures of maternal adiposity. Atypical low circulating maternal cortisol among depressed (lean and obese) and non-depressed obese pregnant African American women may indicate hypothalamic-pituitary axis dysfunction in early pregnancy.
PMCID: PMC4335360
Pregnancy; Depression; Obesity; Cortisol; Race
15.  Green Space and Stress: Evidence from Cortisol Measures in Deprived Urban Communities 
Contact with green space in the environment has been associated with mental health benefits, but the mechanism underpinning this association is not clear. This study extends an earlier exploratory study showing that more green space in deprived urban neighbourhoods in Scotland is linked to lower levels of perceived stress and improved physiological stress as measured by diurnal patterns of cortisol secretion. Salivary cortisol concentrations were measured at 3, 6 and 9 h post awakening over two consecutive weekdays, together with measures of perceived stress. Participants (n = 106) were men and women not in work aged between 35–55 years, resident in socially disadvantaged districts from the same Scottish, UK, urban context as the earlier study. Results from linear regression analyses showed a significant and negative relationship between higher green space levels and stress levels, indicating living in areas with a higher percentage of green space is associated with lower stress, confirming the earlier study findings. This study further extends the findings by showing significant gender differences in stress patterns by levels of green space, with women in lower green space areas showing higher levels of stress. A significant interaction effect between gender and percentage green space on mean cortisol concentrations showed a positive effect of higher green space in relation to cortisol measures in women, but not in men. Higher levels of neighbourhood green space were associated with healthier mean cortisol levels in women whilst also attenuating higher cortisol levels in men. We conclude that higher levels of green space in residential neighbourhoods, for this deprived urban population of middle-aged men and women not in work, are linked with lower perceived stress and a steeper (healthier) diurnal cortisol decline. However, overall patterns and levels of cortisol secretion in men and women were differentially related to neighbourhood green space and warrant further investigation.
PMCID: PMC3799530  PMID: 24002726
green space; stress; diurnal; saliva; cortisol; neighbourhood; urban; deprivation; gender; mental health
16.  Levels and confounders of morning cortisol collected from adolescents in a naturalistic (school) setting 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2008;33(9):1257-1268.
Salivary cortisol is widely used in research but little is known about the typical, or expected, functioning of the HPA-axis in adolescents in naturalistic settings, nor whether the extensive array of confounders documented in the literature is applicable in this situation.
In a school-based study, 2995 15-year-old pupils provided two saliva samples, 30 min apart, in morning sessions timed to capture peak cortisol decline. The collection protocol was a balance between the large sample size obtainable in a school situation and a limited number of samples, constrained by the school timetable. In addition, pupils completed a questionnaire containing items previously shown to be associated with cortisol levels (e.g. time since awakening and life events), and their height and weight were measured. Outcome measures were cortisol levels at Times 1 and 2, and change (per minute) in cortisol between the two time points.
Median (IQR) cortisol levels for males and females were 10.5 (8.1) and 11.6 (9.3) nmol/L at Time 1, and 8.2 (6.0) and 8.1 (6.5) nmol/L at Time 2. 73% had a decline in cortisol level of more than 10% across the two time points, compatible with the expected diurnal pattern. In bivariate analyses, cortisol sampled on Monday, times of measurement and since awakening, prior smoking and several life events were associated with cortisol levels at Times 1 and 2 in both sexes. However, in multivariate analysis, few of these variables remained after controlling for times of measurement and since awakening and, in addition, the final models differed between the sexes. Two events (friend dying and splitting with a boy/girlfriend) predicted cortisol levels in both sexes while age, maturity, recent eating and smoking were predictors only in males. Several factors associated with cortisol change differed from those observed for absolute levels. Further adjustment for school clustering affected some associations, particularly time of measurement.
This study managed many of the problems found in naturalistic research on cortisol and provides norms for morning cortisol levels in 15-year-old adolescents.
PMCID: PMC2571963  PMID: 18691824
Hydrocortisone; Adolescent; Saliva; Stress; Cross-sectional studies; Social environment
17.  High-end normal adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol levels are associated with specific cardiovascular risk factors in pediatric obesity: a cross-sectional study 
BMC Medicine  2013;11:44.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and in particular cortisol, has been reported to be involved in obesity-associated metabolic disturbances in adults and in selected populations of adolescents. The aim of this study was to investigate the association between morning adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol levels and cardiovascular risk factors in overweight or obese Caucasian children and adolescents.
This cross-sectional study of 450 obese children and adolescents (aged 4 to 18 years) was performed in a tertiary referral center. ACTH, cortisol, cardiovascular risk factors (fasting and post-challenge glucose, high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol, triglycerides, and hypertension) and insulin resistance were evaluated. All analyses were corrected for confounding factors (sex, age, puberty, body mass index), and odds ratios were determined.
ACTH and cortisol levels were positively associated with systolic and diastolic blood pressure, triglycerides, fasting glucose and insulin resistance. Cortisol, but not ACTH, was also positively associated with LDL-cholesterol. When adjusted for confounding factors, an association between ACTH and 2 h post-oral glucose tolerance test glucose was revealed. After stratification according to cardiovascular risk factors and adjustment for possible confounding factors, ACTH levels were significantly higher in subjects with triglycerides ≥90th percentile (P <0.02) and impaired fasting glucose or glucose tolerance (P <0.001). Higher cortisol levels were found in subjects with blood pressure ≥95th percentile and LDL-cholesterol ≥90th percentile. Overall, the highest tertiles of ACTH (>5.92 pmol/l) and cortisol (>383.5 nmol/l) although within the normal range were associated with increases in cardiovascular risk factors in this population.
In obese children and adolescents, high morning ACTH and cortisol levels are associated with cardiovascular risk factors. High ACTH levels are associated with high triglyceride levels and hyperglycemia, while high cortisol is associated with hypertension and high LDL-cholesterol. These specific relationships suggest complex mechanisms through which the HPA axis may contribute to metabolic impairments in obesity, and merit further investigations.
PMCID: PMC3621818  PMID: 23425018
ACTH; cardiovascular risk; cortisol; glucose; hypertension; lipids; obesity; pediatric
18.  Relationship between the cortisol awakening response and other features of the diurnal cortisol rhythm: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2013;38(11):10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.06.032.
Cumulative cortisol burden is known to influence neuropsychiatric and metabolic disorders. To better understand the relationship between daily cortisol exposure and measures of the diurnal circadian cortisol rhythm, we examined the cross-sectional association of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) with wake-up cortisol, bedtime cortisol, diurnal slope, and total cortisol area under the curve (AUC). Up to 18 salivary cortisol samples were collected over 3 days from 935 White, Hispanic, and Black individuals (mean age 65 ± 9.8 years) in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Outcome measures included awakening cortisol, CAR (awakening to 30 min post-awakening), early decline (30 min to 2 h post-awakening), late decline (2 h post-awakening to bedtime), and the corresponding AUCs. Total cortisol AUC was a summary measure of cumulative cortisol exposure. Higher CAR was associated with significantly lower wake-up cortisol (β = −0.56; 95% CI: −0.59 to −0.53) and a higher early decline AUC (β = 0.38; 95% CI: 0.34–0.42) but was not associated with total cortisol AUC (β = 0.04; 95% CI: −0.01 to 0.09), or other diurnal cortisol curve components following multivariable adjustment. Total cortisol AUC was significantly and positively associated with wake-up cortisol (β = 0.36; 95% CI: 0.32–0.40), bedtime cortisol (β = 0.61; 95% CI: 0.58–0.64), and other AUC measures, following multivariable adjustment. Associations were similar by sex, race/ethnicity, and age categories. We conclude that bedtime cortisol showed the strongest correlation with total cortisol AUC, suggesting it may be a marker of daily cortisol exposure.
PMCID: PMC3812410  PMID: 23890985
Cortisol awakening response (CAR); Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis; Diurnal cortisol; Correlation; Population-based study
19.  Diurnal salivary cortisol concentrations in Parkinson’s disease: increased total secretion and morning cortisol concentrations 
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder. There is limited knowledge about the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in PD. The primary aim of this prospective study was to analyze diurnal salivary cortisol concentrations in patients with PD and correlate these with age, gender, body mass index (BMI), duration of PD, and pain. The secondary aim was to compare the results with a healthy reference group.
Fifty-nine PD patients, 35 women and 24 men, aged 50–79 years, were recruited. The reference group comprised healthy individuals matched for age, gender, BMI, and time point for sampling. Salivary cortisol was collected at 8 am, 1 pm, and 8 pm, and 8 am the next day using cotton-based Salivette® tubes and analyzed using Spectria® Cortisol I125. A visual analog scale was used for estimation of pain.
The median cortisol concentration was 16.0 (5.8–30.2) nmol/L at 8 am, 5.8 (3.0–16.4) at 1 pm, 2.8 (1.6–8.0) at 8 pm, and 14.0 (7.5–28.7) at 8 am the next day. Total secretion and rate of cortisol secretion during the day (8 am–8 pm) and the concentration of cortisol on the next morning were lower (12.5 nmol/L) in the reference group. No significant correlations with age, gender, BMI, duration of PD, Hoehn and Yahr score, Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale III score, gait, pain, or cortisol concentrations were found.
The neurodegenerative changes in PD does not seem to interfere with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Salivary cortisol concentrations in PD patients were increased in the morning compared with the reference group, and were not influenced by motor dysfunction, duration of disease, or coexistence of chronic or acute pain.
PMCID: PMC3160865  PMID: 21887109
cortisol; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; Parkinson’s disease
20.  Circulating Cortisol-Associated Signature of Glucocorticoid-related Gene Expression in Subcutaneous Fat of Obese Subjects 
Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)  2013;21(5):960-967.
Serum cortisol concentrations fluctuate in a circadian fashion, and glucocorticoids exert strong effects on adipose tissue and induce obesity through the glucocorticoid receptor.
Design and Methods
To examine the impact of physiologic levels of circulating cortisol on subcutaneous adipose tissue, 25 overweight and obese subjects were employed, and their serum levels of morning (AM) and evening (PM) cortisol, AM/PM cortisol ratios, and 24-h urinary-free cortisol (UFC) were compared with their clinical parameters, serum cytokine levels, and mRNA expression of 93 receptor action-regulating and 93 glucocorticoid-responsive genes in abdominal subcutaneous fat.
Results and Conclusions
AM cortisol levels did not correlate with mRNA expression of the all genes examined, whereas PM cortisol levels, AM/PM cortisol ratios, and 24-h UFC were associated with distinct sets of these genes. Body mass index did not significantly correlate with the four cortisol parameters employed. These results suggest that physiologic levels of AM serum cortisol do not solely represent biological effects of circulating cortisol on the expression of glucocorticoid-related genes in subcutaneous adipose tissue, whereas PM levels, amplitude, and net amounts of the diurnally fluctuating serum cortisol have distinct effects. Through the genes identified in this study, glucocorticoids appear to influence intermediary metabolism, energy balance, inflammation, and local circadian rythmicity in subcutaneous fat. Our results may also explain in part the development of metabolic abnormality and obesity in subjects under stress or patients with melancholic/atypical depression who demonstrate elevated levels of PM serum cortisol.
PMCID: PMC4199221  PMID: 23784897
21.  Association of Salivary Cortisol Circadian Pattern with Cynical Hostility: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis 
Psychosomatic medicine  2009;71(7):748-755.
To determine if cynical hostility is associated with alterations in diurnal profiles of cortisol. Hostility has been linked to cardiovascular disease but the biological mechanisms mediating this association remain unknown.
Up to 18 measures of salivary cortisol taken over three days were obtained from each of 936 participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Cynical hostility was measured using an 8-item subscale of the Cook-Medley Hostility scale. Cortisol profiles were modeled using regression spline models incorporating random parameters for subject-specific effects. Models were adjusted for race, sex, age, socioeconomic position, and lifestyle factors. The association of cynical hostility with key features of the cortisol diurnal profile, both in the full sample and important subsamples, was examined.
Waking cortisol levels as well as the extent of the morning surge in cortisol levels did not differ significantly across tertiles of cynical hostility. However respondents in the lowest tertile of cynical hostility experienced a 22% sharper decline in salivary cortisol (age-and sex-adjusted slope of −.49 μg/dl per hour) than respondents in the highest tertile (−.40 μg/dl per hour, p for difference=.0004). Intertertile differences in these parameters remained unaltered after further adjustment for potential confounders. This pattern of differences in cortisol diurnal profile tended to be related in a dose-response way to level of cynical hostility, and persisted in stratified analyses.
Cynical hostility is associated with the declining phase of the awakening cortisol response. The implications of this for cardiovascular and other health outcomes remain to be determined.
PMCID: PMC3040517  PMID: 19592518
Cortisol rhythms; cynical hostility; regression splines; random effects; cortisol awakening response
22.  Dysregulation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and physical performance at older ages: An individual participant meta-analysis 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2013;38(1):40-49.
The association between functioning of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and physical performance at older ages remains poorly understood. We carried out meta-analyses to test the hypothesis that dysregulation of the HPA axis, as indexed by patterns of diurnal cortisol release, is associated with worse physical performance. Data from six adult cohorts (ages 50–92 years) were included in a two stage meta-analysis of individual participant data. We analysed each study separately using linear and logistic regression models and then used meta-analytic methods to pool the results. Physical performance outcome measures were walking speed, balance time, chair rise time and grip strength. Exposure measures were morning (serum and salivary) and evening (salivary) cortisol. Total sample sizes in meta-analyses ranged from n = 2146 for associations between morning Cortisol Awakening Response and balance to n = 8448 for associations between morning cortisol and walking speed. A larger diurnal drop was associated with faster walking speed (standardised coefficient per SD increase 0.052, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.029, 0.076, p < 0.001; age and gender adjusted) and a quicker chair rise time (standardised coefficient per SD increase −0.075, 95% CI −0.116, −0.034, p < 0.001; age and gender adjusted). There was little evidence of associations with balance or grip strength. Greater diurnal decline of the HPA axis is associated with better physical performance in later life. This may reflect a causal effect of the HPA axis on performance or that other ageing-related factors are associated with both reduced HPA reactivity and performance.
PMCID: PMC3533133  PMID: 22658392
HPA axis; Physical capability; Healthy ageing
23.  Recent depressive and anxious symptoms predict cortisol responses to stress in men 
Psychoneuroendocrinology  2009;34(7):10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.02.005.
Individuals with major depressive disorder show blunted cortisol responses to psychosocial stressors, but the extent to which this pattern of dampened responding characterizes individuals experiencing sub-clinical levels of depressive symptoms is unknown. This study investigated whether self-reports of depressive and anxious symptoms over the previous two weeks were associated with cortisol responses to a laboratory social stress task. In addition, we tested whether these associations were mediated by baseline cortisol, subjective responses to the task, or health behaviors. Healthy adults (N = 76) completed the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire prior to engaging in the Trier Social Stress Task. Salivary cortisol was measured at 8 points before and after the task to assess cortisol responding. Linear regressions revealed that men reporting more distress and somatic symptoms had smaller cortisol responses, but anhedonic symptoms were not related to cortisol. Distress was associated with lower baseline cortisol, which in turn statistically mediated the relationship between distress and cortisol response. These results demonstrate that the recent experience of depressive and anxious symptoms is associated with smaller cortisol responses to a psychosocial stressor in a nonclinical population.
PMCID: PMC3845823  PMID: 19272714
cortisol; stress; negative emotion; men; depression; anxiety
24.  Longitudinal measurement of cortisol in association with mental health and experience of domestic violence and abuse: study protocol 
BMC Psychiatry  2013;13:188.
Domestic violence and abuse is threatening behavior, violence/abuse used by one person to control the other within an intimate or family-type relationship. Women experience more severe physical and sexual domestic violence and abuse and more mental health consequences than men. The current study aims at exploring of the role of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis activity in abuse impact on women's mental health. Study objectives: 1) To evaluate diurnal cortisol slope, cortisol awakening response, and the mean cortisol concentration in women with a current or recent experience of abuse; 2) To estimate whether cortisol secretion is associated with type, severity, duration and cessation of abuse; 3) To investigate whether cortisol acts as mediator between abuse and mental health condition; 4) To examine whether there is any distinction in cortisol levels between those women exposed to both childhood abuse and domestic violence and abuse and those experienced only the latter. 4) To explore whether cortisol secretion differs between women living in refuge and those still living in the community.
To meet study objectives 128 women will be recruited in a domestic violence agency and local communities. Baseline and 3-month follow-up measures will be taken over 6 months after recruitment. Each assessment will include: (1) standardized self-administered questionnaires to evaluate socio-demographics, experience of violence and abuse, mental and physical health; (2) weight and height measurement; (3) self-completion of wakening, post-wakening and evening saliva samples. Saliva will be analysed for cortisol and cortisone using Ultra performance liquid chromatography – tandem mass spectrometry.
We will compare diurnal cortisol parameters between non-abused controls and abuse survivors with and without mental health conditions. First following descriptive statistics for all the cortisol and mental health outcomes, relationships between them will be investigated using appropriate regression models. Second, these techniques will be used to investigate the extent to which cortisol measures act as potential mediators between type, severity, duration of abuse and mental disorders.
Results of the study will increase our understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms of abuse-related mental health disorders in women and inform researchers and practitioners on the possibility of using salivary cortisol as a biological marker for prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment evaluation among abuse survivors.
Trial registration registration NCT01632553
PMCID: PMC3716999  PMID: 23849084
Domestic violence; Partner abuse; Spousal abuse; Battered women; Abused women; Cortisol; Mental health; Depression; Anxiety; Posttraumatic stress disorder
25.  Burnout and Hypocortisolism – A Matter of Severity? A Study on ACTH and Cortisol Responses to Acute Psychosocial Stress 
Background: Common consequences of long-term psychosocial stress are fatigue and burnout. It has been suggested that burnout could be associated with hypocortisolism, thus, inability to produce sufficient amounts of cortisol. This study aimed to investigate whether patients with clinical burnout exhibit aberrant ACTH and cortisol responses under acute psychosocial stress compared with healthy individuals.
Methods: Nineteen patients (9 men and 10 women) and 37 healthy subjects (20 men and 17 women), underwent the Trier Social Stress Test. Blood samples and saliva samples were collected before, after, and during the stress test for measurements of plasma ACTH, serum cortisol, and salivary cortisol. Several statistical analyses were conducted to compare the responses between patients and controls. In addition, in order to investigate the possibility that burnout patients with more severe symptoms would respond differently, sub-groups of patients reporting higher and lower burnout scores were compared.
Results: In both patients and healthy controls, we observed elevated levels of ACTH and cortisol after exposure to the stressor. There were no differences in responses of ACTH, serum cortisol, or salivary cortisol between patients and controls. Patients reporting higher burnout scores had lower salivary cortisol responses than controls, indicating that patients with more severe burnout symptoms may be suffering from hypocortisolism. In addition, patients with more severe burnout symptoms tended to have smaller ACTH responses than the other patients. However, there was no corresponding difference in serum cortisol.
Conclusion: This study indicates that hypocortisolism is not present in a clinical burnout patient group as a whole but may be present in the patients with more severe burnout symptoms.
PMCID: PMC4313581
chronic stress; burnout; Trier Social Stress Test; acute stress response; adrenocorticotropic hormone; cortisol; hypocortisolism

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