Investigating the effect of acute sleep deprivation on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis response to a psychosocial stressor

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017 May:79:1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.01.030. Epub 2017 Feb 3.


The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been previously identified as one potential mechanism that may explain the link between sleep deprivation and negative health outcomes. However, few studies have examined the direct association between sleep deprivation and HPA-axis functioning, particularly in the context of stress. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to investigate the relationship between acute sleep deprivation and HPA-axis reactivity to a psychosocial stressor. Participants included 40 healthy, young adults between the ages of 18-29. The current protocol included spending two nights in the laboratory. After an adaptation night (night 1), participants were randomized into either a sleep deprivation condition (29 consecutive hours awake) or a control condition (night 2). Following the second night, all participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Salivary cortisol was collected before, during, and after the TSST. Results indicated that there were significant group differences in cortisol stress reactivity. Specifically, compared to participants in the control condition, participants in the sleep deprivation condition had greater baseline (i.e., pre-stress) cortisol, yet a blunted cortisol response to the TSST. Taken together, a combination of elevated baseline cortisol (and its subsequent effect on HPA-axis regulatory processes) and a relative 'ceiling' on the amount of cortisol a laboratory stressor can produce may explain why participants in the sleep deprivation condition demonstrated blunted cortisol responses.

Keywords: Cortisol; Gender; HPA axis; Sleep; Sleep deprivation; Stress.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone