Sleep deprivation potentiates HPA axis stress reactivity in healthy adults

Health Psychol. 2014 Nov;33(11):1430-4. doi: 10.1037/a0034219. Epub 2014 May 12.


Objective: This article describes an experiment that was designed to investigate the effects of sleep deprivation on physiological stress responses in healthy adults.

Method: Twenty-six participants, ages 22-49, completed a 3-night laboratory experiment with randomization to one night of sleep-deprivation or a normal-sleep control condition. After a night of baseline sleep, 12 participants were sleep deprived and 14 were not. After the sleep manipulation, each participant completed the Trier Social Stress Test, a task that requires delivering a speech and performing difficult arithmetic in front of a stern, three-person panel. The stressor was administered from 5:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m. and saliva samples were collected 20 and 5 min before (baseline) and 5, 20, and 40 min after the stressor. Samples were assayed for cortisol (a biomarker for the HPA axis) and alpha-amylase (a putative biomarker for the sympatho-adrenal medullar system).

Results: Sleep deprivation was associated with higher cortisol levels at baseline (p < .0001) and an amplified cortisol response to the stressor relative to control participants (pinteraction = 0.0039). Alpha-amylase showed a significant main effect of the stressor (p = .0026), but there was no effect of sleep loss at baseline or in response to the stressor.

Conclusions: Sleep deprivation is associated with both elevated resting cortisol release and with an exaggerated cortisol response to a stressor indicative of elevated HPA axis responses in healthy adults. Individual differences in the magnitude of this response may represent a risk factor for psychological and physical health consequences associated with heightened cortisol exposure.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone