Somatic Disease and Salivary Cortisol
Pp. 167-185 (19)
Margareta Kristenson Kristenson and Oskar Lundgren
Stress is a well-known predictor of somatic disease. Although most clearly demonstrated for
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), stress has also been shown to be involved in several other somatic
diseases e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and for pain syndromes. The psychoneuroendocrine
mechanisms of these effects have been examined in terms of cortisol levels and cortisol dynamics. The
aim of this chapter is to investigate if there are associations between salivary cortisol and somatic
disease in terms of cardiovascular disease (CVD), rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and pain, and whether
divergent results can be explained by differences in the theoretic assumptions made and methods used.
A literature research identified eight articles on CVD, four articles on cancer (all breast cancer), three
papers on rheumatoid arthritis and 15 papers on the term pain. CVD, CHD and atherosclerosis were
associated with low morning cortisol levels, high evening cortisol levels and a flat diurnal curve.
Among patients with metastatic breast cancer, high evening levels and low diurnal deviation
characterized patients compared with healthy controls, and low diurnal deviation predicted poorer
survival. No relationships with salivary cortisol were found early in the breast cancer disease process.
Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, especially with high disease activity, had higher evening levels and a
poorer reactivity for laboratory stress. In most studies on pain, low morning cortisol, high evening
cortisol, low cortisol awakening response and low diurnal deviation were associated with more pain.
Fibromyalgia and pelvic pain among men were an exception. We found few studies where the
relationship between salivary cortisol and somatic disease/illness was analyzed. However, among these,
a relatively large proportion showed significant findings. The results suggest that, across outcomes, low
morning cortisol levels, high evening cortisol levels and a low dynamic cortisol response to stress are
related to poorer somatic outcome.
Salivary cortisol, cardiovascular disorders, breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, pain, single time
point measures, deviations measures, area under the curve, laboratory test, dexamethasone.
Professor in Social Medicine and Public Health Science at the Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Linköping University, 58183 Linköping, Sweden, Ph.D. Student in Social Medicine and Public Health Science at the Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Linköping University, Sweden