Increases in stress hormone levels in a UK population during the COVID-19 pandemic: A prospective cohort study

Ru Jia, Kieran Ayling, Carol Coupland, Trudie Chalder, Adam Massey, Urs Nater, Elizabeth Broadbent, Norina Gasteiger, Wei Gao, Clemens Kirschbaum, Kavita Vedhara

BACKGROUND: Research suggests that psychological factors may influence vulnerability to SARS-CoV-2 infection, although the mechanisms are unclear.

PURPOSE: We examined whether the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis may be a possible mechanism, by measuring the relationship between indices of psychological distress and cortisone in hair (hairE) in a UK cohort during the COVID-19 pandemic.

METHODS: Participants (N = 827) provided two 3 cm hair samples over a 6-month period between April-September 2020. Samples reflected hairE in the 3 months prior to the collection date.

RESULTS: HairE in the first samples (T1: commenced April 2020) did not differ significantly from pre-pandemic population norms. However, hairE in the second samples (T2: commenced July 2020) were significantly higher than T1 and pre-pandemic population norms, with a 23% increase between T1 and T2. Linear regressions, controlling for age and gender, demonstrated that at both timepoints, hairE levels were greatest in people with a history of mental health difficulties. In addition, stress reported at T1 predicted greater hairE at T2 and a greater change in hairE between T1 and T2.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings demonstrate that during the COVID-19 pandemic hairE was substantially elevated across a large community cohort, with greatest levels in those with a history of mental health difficulties and greatest changes in those reporting greatest levels of stress early in the pandemic. Further research is required with verified SARS-CoV-2 outcomes to determine whether the HPA axis is among the mechanisms by which a history of mental health difficulties and stress influence SARS-CoV-2 outcomes.

Forschungsplattform The Stress of Life - Processes and Mechanisms underlying Everyday Life Stress, Institut für Klinische und Gesundheitspsychologie
Externe Organisation(en)
Technische Universität Dresden, University of Auckland, University of Nottingham, King's College London, Cortigenix Laboratory
ÖFOS 2012
501010 Klinische Psychologie
ASJC Scopus Sachgebiete
Endocrine and Autonomic Systems, Psychiatry and Mental health, Biological Psychiatry, Endocrinology, Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
Sustainable Development Goals
SDG 3 – Gesundheit und Wohlergehen
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