Individual differences in the diurnal cortisol response to stress

Anna Dahlgren, Torbjörn Akerstedt, Göran Kecklund
Chronobiology International 2004, 21 (6): 913-22
The objectives of this study were to explore individual differences associated with diverse reactions in cortisol secretion under different stress levels. This study was part of a larger project concerning working hours and health. Thirty-four white-collar workers participated under two different conditions; one work week with a high stress level (H) and one with a lower stress level (L) as measured through self-rated stress during workdays. Based on the morning cortisol concentration during a workday subjects were divided into two groups. One group consisted of subjects whose morning level of cortisol increased in response to the high-stress week, compared to their morning levels in the low-stress condition (Group 1). The other group consisted of subjects whose morning cortisol response was the opposite, with a lower level under the high stress condition (Group 2). Subjects wore actiwatches, completed a sleep diary, and rated their sleepiness and stress for one work week in each condition, i.e., high and low stress. Saliva samples for measures of cortisol were collected on a Wednesday. Group 2 reported higher workload, fatigue, and exhaustion during both weeks. Since there were no differences in perceived stress, neither within nor between groups, the data indicate that there are other factors influencing morning cortisol. The results suggest that one component modulating the cortisol response might be the level of exhaustion, probably related to work overload. Higher levels of stress in exhausted individuals might suppress morning cortisol levels.

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