Sex differences in incidence and severity of some stress-related, neuropsychiatric disorders are often reported to favor men, suggesting that women may be more vulnerable to aberrant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responses to stress. In this review, we discuss several investigations that we, and others, have conducted assessing salivary cortisol as a measure of HPA function. We have examined basal cortisol among healthy men and women and also following acute exposure to stressors. Among healthy participants, men had higher basal cortisol levels than did women. In response to acute stressors, such as carbon dioxide or noise, respectively, cortisol levels were comparable between men and women or higher among women. We have also examined cortisol levels among those with problem eating, gambling, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women with restrained eating habits have higher basal cortisol levels than do women without restrained eating habits. Pathological gamblers have more aberrant stress response to gambling stimuli than do recreational gamblers, and these effects are more prominent among men than women. Men who have motor vehicle accident related PTSD, demonstrate more aberrant cortisol function, than do their female counterparts. Although these sex differences in cortisol seem to vary with type of stress exposure and/or pathophysiological status of the individual, other hormones may influence cortisol response. To address this, cortisol levels among boys and girls with different stress-related experiences, will be the subject of future investigation.
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