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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004 Sep;29(8):983-92.

Acute HPA axis responses, heart rate, and mood changes to psychosocial stress (TSST) in humans at different times of day.

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  • 1Department of Behavioral Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Turnerstr. 1, CH-8092 Z├╝rich, Switzerland.


There is evidence showing that HPA axis responses to pharmacological provocation depend on time of day with larger cortisol responses in the afternoon and evening compared to the morning hours. However, it is still unknown whether HPA axis responses to psychological stress are affected by time of day and whether they can be assessed with equal reliability in the morning and afternoon, respectively. The present reanalysis is based on five independent studies conducted in the same laboratory by and. All subjects were confronted with the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) either in the morning or in the afternoon. The total sample consisted of 180 adults with 115 younger (49 females, 66 males) and 65 older adults (32 females, 33 males). All ANCOVA results controlled for possible age and gender effects. Stress-related free salivary cortisol, total plasma cortisol and ACTH net increases did not differ according to time of day (all p = n.s.). However, as expected pre-stress free salivary and total plasma cortisol levels differed significantly between the morning and afternoon group (both p < 0.005), leading to a significantly higher free cortisol area under the curve (AUC) in the morning (p = 0.02). Taken together, these observations suggest that the adrenal glands may be more sensitive to ACTH in the morning. Additionally, higher basal salivary cortisol levels were related to a lower stress-related net increase in salivary cortisol (p = 0.02), total plasma cortisol (p < 0.0001), and marginally ACTH (p = 0.09). Stress-related heart rate increases did not differ between groups (p = n.s.). The finding that the TSST-induced mood change was differentially affected by time of day requires further exploration. We conclude that comparable HPA axis and heart rate stress responses to psychosocial stress can be measured in the morning and afternoon.

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