Higher levels of certain hormones may be associated with stress, and can influence a person's ability to cope with the negative effects of stress, according to an article in the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
According to information in the article, dehydroepiandrosterone-S (DHEA-S) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and is believed to be secreted in response to stress. DHEA-S may also provide beneficial effects, such as enhancing memory and reducing symptoms of depression. In humans, levels of DHEA-S peak around the ages of 20-25 years, and then decline to 20 percent to 30 percent of the peak values at ages 70 to 80 years.
Charles A. Morgan III, M.D., M.A., of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System, West Haven, Conn., and colleagues investigated levels of DHEA-S and the DHEA-S-cortisol ratio (cortisol is another hormone, and the DHEA-S-cortisol ratio may play a role in lessening the impact of stress) among 25 military personnel (average age, 25 years) before and after undergoing stressful scenarios as part of military survival school.
Five days before being exposed to the stressful scenario, blood and saliva samples were taken from the participants and DHEA-S and cortisol levels were measured. Participants also completed a survey rating their symptoms of dissociation, or how in touch (or out of touch) they felt with their environments. During the stressful phase of the study, participants were confined in a mock prisoner of war camp (POWC) where they were interrogated and experienced food and sleep depravation.
Immediately following the 30-minute interrogation phase, blood and saliva samples were taken again, and participants filled out the same survey again.
The researchers found that "The DHEA-S-cortisol ratios during stress were significantly higher in subjects who reported fewer symptoms of dissociation and exhibited superior military performance," the researchers write.
"These data provide prospective, empirical evidence that the DHEA-S level is increased by acute stress in healthy humans and that the DHEA-S-cortisol ratio may index [indicate] the degree to which an individual is buffered against the negative effects of stress," write the authors
"One implication of the present findings is that a low DHEA-S-cortisol ratio may be associated with vulnerability to stress-induced symptoms of dissociation. In the future it may be fruitful to conduct clinical trials designed to prospectively evaluate whether augmentation of DHEA-S levels in humans, before the time of their exposure to stress, will confer a protective effect, as evidenced by diminished peritraumatic [around the time of the traumatic event] dissociation and improved cognitive performance," the researchers conclude.