Hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction in chronic fatigue syndrome, and the effects of low-dose hydrocortisone therapy

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug;86(8):3545-54. doi: 10.1210/jcem.86.8.7735.


These neuroendocrine studies were part of a series of studies testing the hypotheses that 1) there may be reduced activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in chronic fatigue syndrome and 2) low-dose augmentation with hydrocortisone therapy would improve the core symptoms. We measured ACTH and cortisol responses to human CRH, the insulin stress test, and D-fenfluramine in 37 medication-free patients with CDC-defined chronic fatigue syndrome but no comorbid psychiatric disorders and 28 healthy controls. We also measured 24-h urinary free cortisol in both groups. All patients (n = 37) had a pituitary challenge test (human CRH) and a hypothalamic challenge test [either the insulin stress test (n = 16) or D-fenfluramine (n = 21)]. Baseline cortisol concentrations were significantly raised in the chronic fatigue syndrome group for the human CRH test only. Baseline ACTH concentrations did not differ between groups for any test. ACTH responses to human CRH, the insulin stress test, and D- fenfluramine were similar for patient and control groups. Cortisol responses to the insulin stress test did not differ between groups, but there was a trend for cortisol responses both to human CRH and D-fenfluramine to be lower in the chronic fatigue syndrome group. These differences were significant when ACTH responses were controlled. Urinary free cortisol levels were lower in the chronic fatigue syndrome group compared with the healthy group. These results indicate that ACTH responses to pituitary and hypothalamic challenges are intact in chronic fatigue syndrome and do not support previous findings of reduced central responses in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function or the hypothesis of abnormal CRH secretion in chronic fatigue syndrome. These data further suggest that the hypocortisolism found in chronic fatigue syndrome may be secondary to reduced adrenal gland output. Thirty-two patients were treated with a low-dose hydrocortisone regime in a double-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over design, with 28 days on each treatment. They underwent repeated 24-h urinary free cortisol collections, a human CRH test, and an insulin stress test after both active and placebo arms of treatment. Looking at all subjects, 24-h urinary free cortisol was higher after active compared with placebo treatments, but 0900-h cortisol levels and the ACTH and cortisol responses to human CRH and the insulin stress test did not differ. However, a differential effect was seen in those patients who responded to active treatment (defined as a reduction in fatigue score to the median population level or less). In this group, there was a significant increase in the cortisol response to human CRH, which reversed the previously observed blunted responses seen in these patients. We conclude that the improvement in fatigue seen in some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome during hydrocortisone treatment is accompanied by a reversal of the blunted cortisol responses to human CRH.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Area Under Curve
  • Body Mass Index
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / blood
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / drug therapy*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Fenfluramine
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / therapeutic use*
  • Hydrocortisone / urine
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Insulin / blood
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Insulin Secretion
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Reference Values
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Insulin
  • Fenfluramine
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone