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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2003 Apr;28(3):261-73.

Impact of oral contraceptive use on glucocorticoid sensitivity of pro-inflammatory cytokine production after psychosocial stress.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Düsseldorf, Universitätsstrasse 1, Germany.


We previously reported that women using oral contraceptives (OC) show blunted free cortisol responses to psychosocial stress compared to medication-free women. Low cortisol responses to stress have been shown to be associated with increased susceptibilities to chronic inflammatory and autoimmune processes in animal models and certain human diseases.To address the question if the blunted free cortisol response of OC users may be compensated at the level of the target tissue, we measured hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation and glucocorticoid (GC) sensitivity of pro-inflammatory cytokine production after psychosocial stress in 14 women using OC and 11 women in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. All subjects were exposed to the psychosocial stress paradigm 'Trier Social Stress Test' (TSST). Free cortisol was measured repeatedly before and after stress. GC sensitivity was assessed by dexamethasone (DEX) inhibition of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) stimulated production of interleukin-6 (IL-6) in whole blood, immediately before, as well as 10 and 60 min after the stress test. As expected, the stress test induced significant increases in free cortisol in luteal phase women, while OC users showed blunted responses (F=3.31;p<0.05). GC sensitivity showed different response patterns; In luteal phase women a slight but not significant decrease was observed throughout the experiment. In contrast, women using OC showed a significant increase in GC sensitivity after stress (F=3.559;p<0.05). These results show, that an increase in GC sensitivity of pro-inflammatory cytokine production may at least in part compensate the low cortisol levels seen in OC users after stress. This could be one mechanism to protect women using OC medication from chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

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