Chronic stress, hair cortisol and depression: A prospective and longitudinal study of medical internship

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Jun:92:57-65. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.03.020. Epub 2018 Mar 31.


Background: Stress plays a causal role in depression onset, perhaps via alteration of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning. HPA axis hyperactivity has been reported in depression, though inconsistently, and the nature of this relationship remains unclear, partly because cortisol measurement over time has been challenging. Development of hair cortisol assessment, a method that captures cortisol over prolonged periods of time, creates new possibilities. In this study, hair cortisol was incorporated into a prospective and longitudinal study of medical internship, stress and symptoms of depression. This provided a rare opportunity to 1) prospectively assess hair cortisol responses to stress, and 2) examine whether stress-induced changes in hair cortisol predict depressive symptom development.

Methods: Hair cortisol, depressive symptoms, and stress-relevant variables (work hours, sleep, perceived stress, mastery/control) were assessed in interns (n = 74; age 25-33) before and repeatedly throughout medical internship.

Results: Hair cortisol sharply increased with stressor onset, decreased as internship continued, and rose again at year's end. Depressive symptoms rose significantly during internship, but were not predicted by cortisol levels. Hair cortisol also did not correlate with increased stressor demands (work hours, sleep) or stress perceptions (perceived stress, mastery/control); but these variables did predict depressive symptoms.

Discussion: Hair cortisol and depressive responses increased with stress, but they were decoupled, following distinct trajectories that likely reflected different aspects of stress reactivity. While depressive symptoms correlated with stressor demands and stress perceptions, the longitudinal pattern of hair cortisol suggested that it responded to contextual features related to anticipation, novelty/familiarity, and social evaluative threat.

Keywords: Chronic stress; Depression; HPA; Hair cortisol; Medical internship.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease / psychology
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Internship and Residency
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Prospective Studies
  • Self Report
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Students, Medical / psychology*


  • Hydrocortisone