Is HPA axis reactivity in childhood gender-specific? A systematic review

J.J. Hollanders, B. Van Der Voorn, J. Rotteveel, M.J.J. Finken

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


© 2017 The Author(s).Background: In adults, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity shows sexual dimorphism, and this is thought to be a mechanism underlying sex-specific disease incidence. Evidence is scarce on whether these sex differences are also present in childhood. In a meta-analysis, we recently found that basal (non-stimulated) cortisol in saliva and free cortisol in 24-h urine follow sex-specific patterns. We explored whether these findings could be extended with sex differences in HPA axis reactivity. Methods: From inception to January 2016, PubMed and were searched for studies that assessed HPA axis reactivity in healthy girls and boys aged ≤18 years. Articles were systematically assessed and reported in the categories: (1) diurnal rhythm, (2) cortisol awakening response (CAR), (3) protocolled social stress tests similar or equal to the Trier Social Stress Test for children (TSST-C), (4) pharmacological (ACTH and CRH) stress tests, and (5) miscellaneous stress tests. Results: Two independent assessors selected 109 out of 6158 records for full-text screening, of which 81 studies (with a total of 14,591 subjects) were included. Studies showed that girls had a tendency towards a more variable diurnal rhythm (12 out of 29 studies), a higher CAR (8 out of 18 studies), and a stronger cortisol response to social stress tests (9 out of 21 studies). We found no evidence for sex differences in cortisol response after a pharmacological challenge or to miscellaneous stress tests. Discussion: Sex differences in HPA axis reactivity appear to be present in childhood, although evidence is not unequivocal. For a better evaluation of sex differences in HPA axis reactivity, standardization of protocols and reports of stress tests is warranted.
Original languageEnglish
Article number23
JournalBiology of sex differences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2017
Externally publishedYes


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