The cortisol awakening response - normal values and confounds

Noise Health. 2000;2(7):79-88.


In several recent investigations it could be demonstrated that the free cortisol response to awakening can serve as an useful index of the adrenocortical activity. When measured with strict reference to the time of awakening the assessment of this endocrine response is able to uncover subtle changes in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity, which are, for instance, related to persisting pain, burnout and chronic stress. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the HPA axis might serve as an indicator of allostatic load in subjects exposed to prolonged environmental noise. In the present paper four separate studies with a total of 509 adult subjects were combined in order to provide reliable information on normal values for the free cortisol response to awakening. Corresponding with earlier findings, a mean cortisol increase of about 50% within the first 30 minutes after awakening was observed. The intraindividual stability over time was shown to be remarkably high with correlations up to r=.63 (for the area under the response curve). Furthermore, the cortisol rise after awakening is rather consistent, with responder rates of about 75%. Gender significantly influenced early morning free cortisol levels. Although women showed a virtually identical cortisol increase after awakening compared to men, a significantly delayed decrease was observed. Confirming and extending previous findings, the present study strongly suggests that neither age, nor the use of oral contraceptives, habitual smoking, time of awakening, sleep duration or using / not using an alarm clock have a considerable impact on free cortisol levels after awakening. The cortisol awakening response can be assessed under a wide variety of clinical and field settings, since it is non-invasive, inexpensive and easy-to-employ. The present data provide normal values and information on potential confounds which should facilitate investigations into the endocrine consequences of prolonged exposure to environmental noise.