Is Cortisol Excretion Independent of Menstrual Cycle Day? A Longitudinal Evaluation of First Morning Urinary Specimens

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Nepomnaschy PA, Altman RM, Watterson R, Co C, McConnell DS, et al. (2011) Is Cortisol Excretion Independent of Menstrual Cycle Day? A Longitudinal Evaluation of First Morning Urinary Specimens. PLoS ONE 6(3): e18242. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018242

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Cortisol is frequently used as a marker of physiologic stress levels. Using cortisol for that purpose, however, requires a thorough understanding of its normal longitudinal variability. The current understanding of longitudinal variability of basal cortisol secretion in women is very limited. It is often assumed, for example, that basal cortisol profiles do not vary across the menstrual cycle. This is a critical assumption: if cortisol were to follow a time dependent pattern during the menstrual cycle, then ignoring this cyclic variation could lead to erroneous imputation of physiologic stress. Yet, the assumption that basal cortisol levels are stable across the menstrual cycle rests on partial and contradictory evidence. Here we conduct a thorough test of that assumption using data collected for up to a year from 25 women living in rural Guatemala.


We apply a linear mixed model to describe longitudinal first morning urinary cortisol profiles, accounting for differences in both mean and standard deviation of cortisol among women. To that aim we evaluate the fit of two alternative models. The first model assumes that cortisol does not vary with menstrual cycle day. The second assumes that cortisol mean varies across the menstrual cycle. Menstrual cycles are aligned on ovulation day (day 0). Follicular days are assigned negative numbers and luteal days positive numbers. When we compared Models 1 and 2 restricting our analysis to days between −14 (follicular) and day 14 (luteal) then day of the menstrual cycle did not emerge as a predictor of urinary cortisol levels (p-value >0.05). Yet, when we extended our analyses beyond that central 28-day-period then day of the menstrual cycle become a statistically significant predictor of cortisol levels.


The observed trend suggests that studies including cycling women should account for day dependent variation in cortisol in cycles with long follicular and luteal phases.

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