Given the well-documented deleterious health effects, poor sleep has become a serious public health concern and increasing efforts are directed toward understanding underlying pathways. One potential mechanism may be stress and its biological correlates; however, studies investigating the effects of poor sleep on a body's capacity to deal with challenges are lacking. The current study thus aimed at testing the effects of sleep quality and quantity on cortisol responses to acute psychosocial stress. A total of 73 college-aged adults (44 females) were investigated. Self-reported sleep behavior was assessed via the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and salivary cortisol responses to the Trier Social Stress Test were measured. In terms of sleep quality, we found a significant three-way interaction, such that relative to bad sleep quality, men who reported fairly good or very good sleep quality showed blunted or exaggerated cortisol responses, respectively, while women's stress responses were less dependent on their self-reported sleep quality. Contrarily, average sleep duration did not appear to impact cortisol stress responses. Lastly, participants who reported daytime dysfunctions (i.e. having trouble staying awake or keeping up enthusiasm) also showed a trend to blunted cortisol stress responses compared to participants who did not experience these types of daytime dysfunctions. Overall, the current study suggests gender-specific stress reactivity dysfunctions as one mechanism linking poor sleep with detrimental physical health outcomes. Furthermore, the observed differential sleep effects may indicate that while the body may be unable to maintain normal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal functioning in an acute psychosocial stress situation after falling prey to low sleep quality, it may retain capacities to deal with challenges during extended times of sleep deprivation.
Keywords: Cortisol; daytime dysfunctions; psychosocial stress; sleep quality; sleep quantity; trier Social Stress Test.