Results from animal and human studies suggest that disregulations of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are involved in several behavioral, circulatory, endocrine, and immune disorders with clear-cut gender differences in disease prevalence. The aim of the present study was to investigate sex-specific HPA response patterns with a focus on the contribution of gonadal steroids as possible mediators.
A total of 81 healthy adults were investigated in the present study. Twenty men, 19 women in the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, 21 women in the luteal phase, and 21 women using oral contraceptives (OC) were exposed to a brief psychosocial stress test (Trier Social Stress Test; TSST) and injected with 0.25 mg ACTH1-24 on consecutive days. Basal HPA activity was investigated by repeatedly measuring cortisol levels immediately after awakening, as well as in 30-minute intervals from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Additionally, questionnaires were used to assess psychological state and trait parameters.
Results show that the TSST induced significant increases in ACTH, salivary-free cortisol, total plasma cortisol, and heart rates, as well as increased wakefulness and reduced calmness in the total group. Significant group differences emerged for ACTH and salivary-free cortisol stress responses: Although men showed higher ACTH responses to the TSST compared with each of the three groups of women, salivary cortisol responses showed the following response pattern: Luteal = Men > Follicular = OC. The salivary cortisol responses to ACTH1-24 showed a similar response pattern: Luteal > Men > Follicular > OC. In contrast, total blood cortisol levels did not reveal any group difference between sexes or follicular versus luteal phase in either test. Although a similar salivary-free cortisol increase after awakening was found in the four groups, the circadian cortisol profile was significantly different throughout the first 4 hours of sampling. Questionnaire-derived psychological variables, as measured in the present study, could not explain the observed results.
We conclude that gender, menstrual cycle phase, and OC use exert important effects on HPA responsiveness to psychosocial stress in healthy subjects. Although men seem to have a stronger hypothalamic drive in response to stressful stimulation than women, differences in salivary-free cortisol levels, at least in part, may be explained by estradiol-induced changes in corticosteroid-binding protein levels. ACTH and cortisol secretion is not affected by OC use per se but the amount of bioavailable unbound cortisol ("free") is greatly reduced in this group of women after stimulation. Inasmuch as none of these differences between the study groups emerged in total blood cortisol levels, we strongly advocate for the simultaneous measurement of free and total cortisol levels in future studies on HPA functioning.