Corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) is secreted as high-affinity CBG (haCBG), which may be cleaved by tissue proteases to low-affinity CBG (laCBG), releasing free cortisol. Pregnancy and the estrogen-based combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) increase CBG concentrations twofold to threefold. The relative effects of these two hyperestrogenic states on the CBG affinity forms are unknown. We performed an observational study in 30 pregnant women, 27 COCP takers and 23 controls. We analyzed circulating total CBG, haCBG, laCBG, and free and total cortisol concentrations. In pregnancy, total CBG and haCBG were increased compared to controls (both P < 0.0001); however, laCBG concentrations were similar. In COCP takers, total CBG and haCBG were increased [802 ± 41 vs compared to controls (both P < 0.0001)], but laCBG was also increased (P = 0.03). Pregnancy and use of COCP were associated with a comparable rise in haCBG, but laCBG was lower in pregnancy (P < 0.0001). These results were consistent with an estrogen-mediated increase in CBG synthesis in both hyperestrogenemic states but with reduced CBG cleavage in pregnancy relative to the COCP, perhaps due to pregnancy-induced CBG glycosylation. Speculatively, increased circulating haCBG concentrations in pregnancy may provide an increased reservoir of CBG-bound cortisol to prepare for the risk of puerperal infection or allow for cortisol binding in the face of competition from increased circulating progesterone concentrations.
Keywords: cortisol; estrogen; high-affinity CBG; low-affinity CBG; oral contraceptive pill; pregnancy.