Impact of stressors in a natural context on release of cortisol in healthy adult humans: a meta-analysis

Stress. 2008 May;11(3):177-97. doi: 10.1080/10253890701727874.


Increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activation, culminating in elevated circulating cortisol levels is a fundamental response to stressors. In animals, this neuroendocrine change is highly reliable and marked (approximately 5-10-fold elevations), whereas in humans, the increase of cortisol release is less pronounced, and even some potent life-threatening events (anticipation of surgery) only elicit modest cortisol increases. Meta-analysis of factors that influenced the increase of cortisol release in a laboratory context pointed to the importance of social evaluative threats and stressor controllability in accounting for the cortisol rise. The present meta-analysis, covering the period from 1978 through March 2007, was undertaken to identify the factors most closely aligned with cortisol increases in natural settings. It appeared that stressor chronicity was fundamental in predicting cortisol changes; however, this variable is often confounded by the stressor type, the stressor's controllability, as well as contextual factors, making it difficult to disentangle their relative contributions to the cortisol response. Moreover, several experiential factors (e.g. previous stressor experiences) may influence the cortisol response to ongoing stressors, but these are not readily deduced through a meta-analysis. Nevertheless, there are ample data suggesting that stressful events, through their actions on cortisol levels and reactivity, may influence psychological and physical pathology.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Dentistry
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hydrocortisone / urine
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sports
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Hydrocortisone