Sex-specific association between the cortisol awakening response and obsessive-compulsive symptoms in healthy individuals

Cristian Sebastian Melia, Virginia Soria*, Neus Salvat-Pujol, Ángel Cabezas, Roser Nadal, Mikel Urretavizcaya, Alfonso Gutiérrez-Zotes, José Antonio Monreal, José Manuel Crespo, Pino Alonso, Elisabet Vilella, Diego Palao, José Manuel Menchón, Javier Labad

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Previous studies have shown associations between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity (HPA). We aimed to investigate the association between obsessive-compulsive (OC) symptoms and HPA axis functionality in a non-clinical sample and to explore whether there are sex differences in this relationship. Methods: One hundred eighty-three healthy individuals without any psychiatric diagnosis (80 men, 103 women; mean age 41.3 ± 17.9 years) were recruited from the general population. The Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory Revised (OCI-R) was used to assess OC symptoms. State-trait anxiety, perceived stress, and stressful life events were also assessed. Saliva cortisol levels were determined at 6 time points (awakening, 30 and 60 min post-awakening, 10:00 a.m., 23:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. the following day of 0.25 mg dexamethasone intake [that occurred at 23:00 p.m.]). Three HPA axis measures were calculated: Cortisol awakening response (CAR), cortisol diurnal slope, and cortisol suppression ratio after dexamethasone (DSTR). Multiple linear regression analyses were used to explore the association between OC symptoms and HPA axis measures while adjusting for covariates. Our main analyses were focused on OCI-R total score, but we also explored associations with specific OC symptom dimensions. Results: No significant differences were observed between males and females in OC symptoms, anxiety measures, stress, or cortisol measures. In the multiple linear regression analyses between overall OC symptoms and HPA axis measures, a female sex by OC symptoms significant interaction (standardized beta =-0.322; p = 0.023) for the CAR (but not cortisol diurnal slope nor DSTR) was found. Regarding specific symptom dimensions, two other sex interactions were found: A blunted CAR was associated with obsessing symptoms in women, whereas a more flattened diurnal cortisol slope was associated with ordering symptoms in men. Conclusions: There are sex differences in the association between OC symptoms and HPA axis measures in healthy individuals.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number55
JournalBiology of Sex Differences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2019


  • Cortisol
  • OCD
  • Obsessive
  • Sex differences
  • Stress


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