[Disorder of adrenal gland function in chronic fatigue syndrome]

Srp Arh Celok Lek. 2003 Sep-Oct;131(9-10):370-4. doi: 10.2298/sarh0310370z.
[Article in Serbian]


Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is defined as constellation of the prolonged fatigue and several somatic symptoms, in the absence of organic or severe psychiatric disease. However, this is an operational definition and conclusive biomedical explanation remains elusive. Similarities between the signs and symptoms of CFS and adrenal insufficiency prompted the research of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) derangement in the pathogenesis of the CFS. Early studies showed mild glucocorticoid deficiency, probably of central origin that was compensated by enhanced adrenal sensitivity to ACTH. Further studies showed reduced ACTH response to vasopressin infusion. The response to CRH was either blunted or unchanged. Cortisol response to insulin induced hypoglycaemia was same as in the control subjects while ACTH response was reported to be same or enhanced. However, results of direct stimulation of the adrenal cortex using ACTH were conflicting. Cortisol and DHEA responses were found to be the same or reduced compared to control subjects. Scott et al found that maximal cortisol increment from baseline is significantly lower in CFS subjects. The same group also found small adrenal glands in some CFS subjects. These varied and inconsistent results could be explained by the heterogeneous study population due to multifactorial causes of the disease and by methodological differences. The aim of our study was to assess cortisol response to low dose (1 microgram) ACTH using previously validated methodology. We compared cortisol response in the CFS subjects with the response in control and in subjects with suppressed HPA axis due to prolonged corticosteroid use. Cortisol responses were analysed in three subject groups: control (C), secondary adrenal insufficiency (AI), and in CFS. The C group consisted of 39 subjects, AI group of 22, and CFS group of nine subjects. Subject data are presented in table 1. Low dose ACTH test was started at 0800 h with the i.v. injection of 1 microgram ACTH (Galenika, Belgrade, Serbia). Blood samples for cortisol determination were taken from the i.v. cannula at 0, 15, 30, and 60 min. Data are presented as mean +/- standard error (SE). Statistical analysis was done using ANOVA with the Games-Howell post-hoc test to determine group differences. ACTH dose per kg or per square meter of body surface was not different between the groups. Baseline cortisol was not different between the groups. However, cortisol concentrations after 15 and 30 minutes were significantly higher in the C group than in the AI group. Cortisol concentration in the CFS group was not significantly different from any other group (Graph 1). Cortisol increment at 15 and 30 minutes from basal value was significantly higher in C group than in other two groups. However, there was no significant difference in cortisol increment between the AI and CFS groups at any time of the test. On the contrary, maximal cortisol increment was not different between CFS and other two groups, although it was significantly higher in C group than in the AI group. Maximal cortisol response to the ACTH stimulation and area under the cortisol response curve was significantly larger in C group compared to AI group, but there was no difference between CFS and other two groups. Several previous studies assessed cortisol response to ACTH stimulation. Hudson and Cleare analysed cortisol response to 1 microgram ACTH in CFS and control subjects. They compared maximum cortisol attained during the test, maximum cortisol increment, and area under the cortisol response curve. There was no difference between the groups in any of the analysed parameters. However, authors commented that responses were generally low. On the contrary Scott et al found that cortisol increment at 30 min is significantly lower in the CFS than in the control group. Taking into account our data it seems that the differences found in previous studies papers are caused by the methodological differences. We have shown that cortisol increment at 15 and 30 min is significantly lower in CFS group than in C group. Nevertheless, maximum cortisol attained during the test, maximum cortisol increment, and area under the cortisol response curve were not different between the C and CFS groups. This is in agreement with our previous findings that cortisol increment at 15 minutes has the best diagnostic value of all parameters obtained during of low dose ACTH test. However, there was no difference between CFS and AI group in any of the parameters, although AI group had significantly lower cortisol concentrations at 15 and 30 minutes, maximal cortisol response, area under the cortisol curve, maximal cortisol increment, and maximal cortisol change velocity than C group. Consequently, reduced adrenal responsiveness to ACTH exists in CFS. In conclusion, we find that regarding the adrenal response to ACTH stimulation CFS subjects present heterogeneous group. In some subjects cortisol response is preserved, while in the others it is similar to one found in secondary adrenal insufficiency.

Publication types

  • English Abstract

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Adrenal Cortex Function Tests
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Adult
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone