Cortisol and Severe Fatigue: A Longitudinal Study in Adolescent Girls

[Note: Cortisol secretion is activated by stress.]

Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Feb 5; [E-publication ahead of print]

Authors and affiliations: Ter Wolbeek M, van Doornen LJ, Coffeng LE, Kavelaars A, Heijnen CJ. Laboratory of Psychoneuroimmunology, University Medical Center Utrecht; Department of Health Psychology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

PMID: 17287088

Fatigue is a common complaint among adolescents, especially in girls, and is associated with high rates of school absenteeism. Severe fatigue is often accompanied by psychological and physical symptoms.

In the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis has previously been found to be altered. [The HPA axis is “the body's primary stress management system.”]

The aim of the present study was to investigate whether cortisol production is deviant in fatigued adolescent girls from the general population and to study longitudinal changes in fatigue in association with possible changes in HPA-axis functioning.

In the cross-sectional part of the study, the cortisol response to awakening (CAR) and to a low-dose oral dexamethasone were examined in a group of fatigued adolescent girls (n=87) in comparison to a non-fatigued control group (n=77). Questionnaires regarding fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep quality, somatic symptoms and CFS-related symptoms were filled out. Follow up measurements were performed after 6 and 12 months.

While the fatigued and non-fatigued group differed remarkably on all symptom self-reports, no differences between groups in CAR and response to dexamethasone were observed. Girls in the fatigued group remained fatigued over time and reported high levels of other psychological and physical symptoms during the whole year of the study. The CAR varied between time points but correlated non-systematically with situational characteristics or symptom reports.

We conclude that trait-like fatigue, as measured in a sample of adolescent girls from a high school population, is not reflected in a dysregulation as assessed on the level of salivary cortisol after awakening.

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