Obesity and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in adolescent girls

Metabolism. 2012 Mar;61(3):341-8. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2011.07.009. Epub 2011 Sep 23.


Stress and stress-related concomitants, including hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, are implicated in obesity and its attendant comorbidities. Little is known about this relationship in adolescents. To begin to address this important knowledge gap, we studied HPA axis activity in 262 healthy adolescent girls aged 11, 13, 15, and 17 years. We hypothesized that obesity would be correlated with increased HPA axis activity and reactivity. Measures of HPA axis activity included 3 blood samples obtained midday (between 1:00 and 2:00 pm) over the course of 40 minutes; overnight urine free cortisol; and cortisol levels 0, 20, and 40 minutes after venipuncture (cortisol reactivity). Measures of adiposity included body mass index (BMI), BMI z score (BMI-Z), percentage body fat, and fat distribution (central adiposity) assessed by dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. Daytime levels of serum cortisol were inversely associated with BMI-Z and central adiposity (P < .05). The urine free cortisol excretion rate was positively correlated with BMI, BMI-Z, and central adiposity. There was blunting of cortisol response to venipuncture with increasing adiposity. Our results suggest that there may be reduced cortisol levels during the day and increased levels at night with increasing degree of adiposity. This study provides preliminary findings indicating an alteration of the circadian rhythm of cortisol with obesity. We conclude that obesity is associated with altered HPA activity in adolescent girls. The clinical implications of our findings require further investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Absorptiometry, Photon
  • Adiposity / physiology
  • Adolescent
  • Anthropometry
  • Area Under Curve
  • Body Composition / physiology
  • Body Mass Index
  • Breast / growth & development
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / urine
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Menarche
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Overweight / physiopathology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Radioimmunoassay
  • Socioeconomic Factors


  • Hydrocortisone