The potential role of hypocortisolism in the pathophysiology of stress-related bodily disorders

Christine Heim, Ulrike Ehlert, Dirk H. Hellhammer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1392 Scopus citations


Representing a challenge for current concepts of stress research, a number of studies have now provided convincing evidence that the adrenal gland is hypoactive in some stress-related states. The phenomenon of hypocortisolism has mainly been described for patients, who experienced a traumatic event and subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, as presented in this review, hypocortisolism does not merely represent a specific correlate of PTSD, since similar findings have been reported for healthy individuals living under conditions of chronic stress as well as for patients with several bodily disorders. These include chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, other somatoform disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma, and many of these disorders have been related to stress. Although hypocortisolism appears to be a frequent and widespread phenomenon, the nature of the underlying mechanisms and the homology of these mechanisms within and across clinical groups remain speculative. Potential mechanisms include dysregulations on several levels of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In addition, factors such as genetic vulnerability, previous stress experience, coping and personality styles may determine the manifestation of this neuroendocrine abnormality. Several authors proposed theoretical concepts on the development or physiological meaning of hypocortisolism. Based on the reviewed findings, we propose that a persistent lack of cortisol availability in traumatized or chronically stressed individuals may promote an increased vulnerability for the development of stress-related bodily disorders. This pathophysiological model may have important implications for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the classical psychosomatic disorders. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-35
Number of pages35
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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