How childhood trauma and recent adverse events are related to hair cortisol levels in a large adult cohort

S Oresta, CH Vinkers, Liesbeth van Rossum, BWJH Penninx, L Nawijn

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Background: Exposure to adversity is a risk factor for many mental and somatic health problems. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation is a potential mechanism linking adversity exposure and negative health outcomes. However, associations between adversity exposure and HPA-axis activity have been inconsistent. To understand the impact of adversity on the HPA-axis, we examined associations between early-life and recent adversity with hair cortisol concentration, an indicator of long-term systemic cortisol levels. Methods: We included 1166 adult participants of the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Hair cortisol was measured in 3 cm of proximal hair, representing cortisol exposure during the previous 3 months. Childhood maltreatment, childhood negative life events, and recent negative life events were retrospectively assessed using interview and self-report questionnaires. Linear regression analyses were performed to assess the associations between childhood maltreatment, childhood life events and recent life events with hair cortisol. Associations with cumulative adversity exposure and with subtypes of childhood maltreatment, childhood and recent negative life events were also investigated, as were interaction effects between adversity and sex, age and psychopathology. Results: Childhood maltreatment (β = 0.034, p = 0.243), childhood life events (β = − 0.017, p = 0.544), and recent life events (β = − 0.021, p = 0.456) were not significantly associated with hair cortisol levels. Subtypes of childhood maltreatment and specific childhood and recent life events were not significantly associated with hair cortisol (pFDR>0.05). There were no significant interaction effects between adversity exposure and sex, age or depression/anxiety diagnostic status on hair cortisol. Conclusions: There were no significant associations between childhood and recent adversity with systemic cortisol levels in adults. Effects of early-life and adult adversity are complex and may not directly impact on long-term systemic cortisol levels as measured in hair.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105150
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The infrastructure for the NESDA study ( ) is funded through the Geestkracht Program of the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (Zon-MW, grant number 10-000-1002 ) and is supported by participating universities and mental health care organizations ( VU University Medical Center , GGZ inGeest , Arkin , Leiden University Medical Center , GGZ Rivierduinen , University Medical Center Groningen , Lentis , GGZ Friesland , GGZ Drenthe , IQ Healthcare , Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL) and Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction (Trimbos), all based in the Netherlands). The authors wish to thank the participants of the NESDA study, and the staff involved in data collection and data management.

Funding Information:
BWJHP has received (non-related) research funding from Janssen Research & Development, LLC, and Boehringer Ingelheim. All remaining authors have nothing to disclose.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors

Research programs

  • EMC OR-01


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