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Psychosomatic Medicine:
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Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress

Kirschbaum, C; Wüst, S; Hellhammer, D

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Abstract

: In four independent studies, sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress were investigated in healthy adolescents and adults (total n = 153). Public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience (Studies 1-3) reliably induced increases in free cortisol levels in both sexes with 2- to 4-fold increases above baseline levels. Mean cortisol responses were 1.5- to 2-fold higher in men compared with women. In Study 3, cortisol profiles were additionally investigated after human corticotropin-releasing hormone (h-CRH) and bicycle ergometry until exhaustion. Here, both sexes showed very similar adrenocortical responses. Furthermore, men showed elevated cortisol levels in anticipation of the psychological stress situation without actually having to perform the tasks (Study 4). Under this condition cortisol concentration was unchanged or decreased in women. From these data we conclude that the observed sex difference does not reflect an overall lower responsiveness of the female adrenal cortex. Although these studies do not provide conclusive data, we suggest sex differences in cognitive and/or emotional responses to distressing psychosocial situations which in turn may influence cortisol secretion.

Copyright (C) 1992 by American Psychosomatic Society

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