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Cortisol Stress Hormone Can Be Measured in Hair Samples


A new study conducted at the University of Western Ontario has found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can be measured in hair. The biomarker may be used to predict the risk of cardiovascular disease as high levels of cortisol and stress have been associated with an increased risk of heart attack.

Excess Stress Associated with Heart Attack Risk

Study researcher Gideon Koren, a professor of pediatric medicine and toxicology at the University of Western Ontario has used hair samples for previous research, including the measurement of drug toxicity in infants whose mothers have used drugs such as cocaine and heroin while pregnant. He states that while the hair itself is not living, the follicle (root) is alive. Substances that seep into the follicle can become trapped in the shaft and remain there even as the hair grows.

Read: Chronic Stress, Depression and Cortisol Levels are Potential Risk Indicators for Periodontal Disease

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He and his team collected hair samples from 112 men from the cardiac unit of the Meir Medical Center in Israel. Half were diagnosed with heart attacks while the other half had other diagnoses such as chest pain. The researchers analyzed the cortisol levels in the 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) of hair closest to the scalp. Each centimeter represents approximately 1 month of stress levels

Cortisol levels were significantly higher in the men who had suffered heart attacks. While it is not the only risk factor for heart attack, cortisol is important determinant says Koren. Elevated cortisol can cause increases in blood pressure, blood sugar, body fat, and blood clotting. The men in the study who suffered were also more likely to have higher levels of LDL cholesterol and higher BMI’s, note the authors.

Read: Stress Hormone Can Lead to Obesity in Adolescent Girls

The results still need to be replicated with larger number of patients and among women. If the test proves reliable, it could become a noninvasive way to measure stress over time. “Hair tells me what happened to you in the last 10 months,” says Koren. Previous measures of cortisol in blood, saliva or urine could record only a few hours or day’s worth.

Source Reference:
"Hair cortisol and the risk for acute myocardial infarction in adult men"
David Pereg, Rachel Gow, Morris Mosseri, Michael Lishner, Michael Rieder, Stan Van Uum, Gideon Koren
Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress
Posted online on September 2, 2010. (doi:10.3109/10253890.2010.511352)