Hair cortisol and self-perceived stress in adolescents with multi-system functional somatic disorders

Rebecca Nyengaard, Karen Hansen Kallesøe, Martin Køster Rimvall, Eva Ørnbøl, Kaare Bro Wellnitz, Else Marie Olsen, Vegard Bruun Bratholm Wyller, Charlotte Ulrikka Rask


BACKGROUND: Long-term stress causing altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dynamics with cortisol dysfunction may be involved in the pathophysiology of functional somatic disorders (FSD), but studies on adolescents with multi-system FSD are lacking. Therefore, we investigated: 1) whether hair cortisol concentration (HCC) differentiates adolescents with multi-system FSD from a) a population-based sample and b) a subgroup derived from the sample reporting a high physical symptom load, and 2) whether FSD population HCC is associated with primary symptom presentations and self-perceived stress.

METHODS: We used data from a clinical sample with multi-system FSD (N = 91, age 15-19 years) and a population-based sample (N = 1,450, age 16-17 years) including a subgroup with top 10% total scores on physical symptoms (N = 147). Density plots and multiple linear regression were applied to compare HCC between groups. In the clinical sample, multiple linear regression was employed to assess the association between HCC and primary symptom clusters and self-perceived stress.

RESULTS: Median HCC was lower in the clinical sample than in the population-based sample (β = 0.80 (95%CI: 0.66, 0.97)), but not significantly different from median HCC in the derived subgroup (β = 0.84 (95%CI: 0.66, 1.07)). In the clinical sample, HCC was not significantly associated with primary symptom clusters (F(2, 82) = 0.13, p = 0.88) or self-perceived stress (F(4, 83) = 1.18, p = 0.33).

CONCLUSION: Our findings indicate that HCC is lowered in adolescents with multi-system FSD but not significantly associated with primary symptom presentations or self-perceived stress. Future studies including multiple measures of HPA axis dynamics alongside psychological measures may further elucidate the role of long-term stress in FSD.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: The AHEAD study was pre-registered at (NCT02346071), 26/01/2015.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBMC Psychiatry
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)101
Publication statusPublished - 5 Feb 2024


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