Habitual sleep quality and diurnal rhythms of salivary cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone in postmenopausal women

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017 Oct;84:172-180. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.07.484. Epub 2017 Jul 19.


Dysregulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been suggested as a potential mechanism linking sleep and cardiometabolic disorders. However, the associations of two primary outputs of the HPA axis, cortisol and its antagonist dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), with sleep are less well studied. In the Nurses' Health Study II, 233 postmenopausal women provided five timed saliva samples over one day (immediately upon waking, 45min, 4h, and 10h after waking, and prior to going to sleep) to measure cortisol and DHEA. Of these, 209 completed assessment of their habitual sleep patterns using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). We used piecewise linear mixed models to compare cross-sectional associations of slopes reflecting diurnal cortisol and DHEA rhythms with overall sleep quality and with seven sub-components. Overall, we observed no differences in the diurnal patterns of cortisol or DHEA between good versus poor sleepers as assessed by the global PSQI score. However, longer sleep latency was associated with significantly reduced cortisol awakening rise (p=0.02). Poorer subjective sleep quality (p=0.02), shorter sleep duration (p=0.02), and lower sleep efficiency (p=0.03) were associated with slower rate of cortisol decline later in the day. Women reporting daytime dysfunction had a sharper cortisol decline early in the day (p=0.03) but a flattened decline later in the day (p=0.01). The differences in diurnal patterns of DHEA between good versus poor sleepers, though less pronounced, were similar in direction to those of cortisol. Self-reported sleep duration, efficiency, latency and daytime dysfunction were associated with altered diurnal rhythms of cortisol and, to a lesser extent, DHEA. These findings provide support for the interplay between sleep and the HPA axis that may contribute to cardiometabolic disease.

Keywords: Cortisol; DHEA; Diurnal rhythms; Sleep.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / analysis
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Postmenopause / metabolism
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology


  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
  • Hydrocortisone