Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction in chronic fatigue syndrome

Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2011 Sep 27;8(1):22-32. doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2011.153.


The weight of current evidence supports the presence of the following factors related to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS): mild hypocortisolism; attenuated diurnal variation of cortisol; enhanced negative feedback to the HPA axis; and blunted HPA axis responsiveness. Furthermore, HPA axis changes seem clinically relevant, as they are associated with worse symptoms and/or disability and with poorer outcomes to standard treatments for CFS. Regarding etiology, women with CFS are more likely to have reduced cortisol levels. Studies published in the past 8 years provide further support for a multifactorial model in which several factors interact to moderate HPA axis changes. In particular, low activity levels, depression and early-life stress appear to reduce cortisol levels, whereas the use of psychotropic medication can increase cortisol. Addressing these factors-for example, with cognitive behavioral therapy-can increase cortisol levels and is probably the first-line approach for correcting HPA axis dysfunction at present, as steroid replacement is not recommended. Given what is now a fairly consistent pattern of findings for the type of HPA axis changes found in CFS, we recommend that future work focuses on improving our understanding of the cause and relevance of these observed changes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / blood
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / metabolism
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / complications*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / epidemiology
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Hydrocortisone / urine
  • Hypothalamic Diseases / complications
  • Hypothalamic Diseases / epidemiology
  • Hypothalamic Diseases / etiology*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Models, Biological
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*


  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
  • Hydrocortisone