Objective: To compare levels of steroid hormones in relation to cytokines and to study levels of cortisol or dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in relation to other adrenal hormones in untreated patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and reactive arthritis (ReA) compared with healthy controls.
Methods: In a retrospective study with 34 RA patients, 46 ReA patients, and 112 healthy subjects, we measured serum levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol, 17-hydroxyprogesterone (17-OH-progesterone), androstenedione (ASD), DHEA, and DHEA sulfate (DHEAS).
Results: RA patients had higher serum levels of IL-6, TNF, cortisol, and DHEA compared with ReA patients and healthy subjects, but no difference was noticed with respect to ACTH and DHEAS. However, in RA and ReA patients compared with healthy subjects, levels of ACTH, cortisol, ASD, DHEAS, and 17-OH-progesterone were markedly lower in relation to levels of IL-6 and TNF. Furthermore, the number of swollen joints correlated inversely with the ratio of serum cortisol to serum IL-6 in RA (R(Rank) = -0.582, P = 0.001) and, to a lesser extent, in ReA (R(Rank) = -0.417, P = 0.011). In RA patients, the mean grip strength of both hands was positively correlated with the ratio of serum cortisol to serum IL-6 (R(Rank) = 0.472, P = 0.010). Furthermore, in these untreated patients with RA and ReA, there was a relative decrease in the secretion of 17-OH-progesterone, ASD, and DHEAS in relation to DHEA and cortisol. This indicates a relative predominance of the nonsulfated DHEA and cortisol in relation to all other measured adrenal steroid hormones in the early stages of these inflammatory diseases.
Conclusion: This study indicates that levels of ACTH and cortisol are relatively low in relation to levels of IL-6 and TNF in untreated patients with early RA and ReA compared with healthy subjects. The study further demonstrates that there is a relative increase of DHEA and cortisol in relation to other adrenal hormones, such as DHEAS. This study emphasizes that adrenal steroid secretion is inadequately low in relation to inflammation. Although changes in hormone levels are similar in RA and ReA, alteration of steroidogenesis is more pronounced in RA patients than in ReA patients.