Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
ISSN: 1303 - 2968   
Ios-APP Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Androit-APP Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
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©Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2012) 11, 571 - 581

Review article
Concerns Regarding Hair Cortisol as a Biomarker of Chronic Stress in Exercise and Sport Science
Markus Gerber1, , Serge Brand2, Magnus Lindwall3, Catherine Elliot1, Nadeem Kalak2, Christian Herrmann1, Uwe Pühse1, Ingibjörg H. Jonsdottir4
Author Information
1 Institute of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Basel,
2 Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel, Center for Affective, Stress and Sleep Disorders,
3 Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science, and Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg,
4 Institute of Stress Medicine, and Institute of Physiology and Neuroscience, The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Switzerland

Markus Gerber
✉ Institute of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland
Email: markus.gerber@unibas.ch
Publish Date
Received: 30-05-2012
Accepted: 27-09-2012
Published (online): 01-12-2012
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ABSTRACT

Hair cortisol has the potential to fill the methodological void of long-term cortisol assessment while becoming a widely accepted measure in biopsychology. This review critically examines the applicability and relevance of hair cortisol measurement specifically within the field of exercise and sport science. Current measures of the HPA axis only cover a brief time period, whereas hair cortisol is a unique, non-invasive means to capture long- term cortisol secretion. Studies have shown that individuals who have elevated cortisol secretion (e.g. due to diseases associated with a disturbed activation of the HPA axis or exposure to stressful life events) reveal increased hair cortisol. By contrast, only weak correlations exist between hair cortisol and perceived stress, and the direction of the relationship between hair cortisol levels and mental disorders is unclear. Acute exercise, however, results in increased levels of cortisol that eventually is reflected in higher levels of cortisol in hair samples and studies have shown that exercise intensity is related to hair cortisol level. Thus, elevated hair cortisol levels found among regular exercisers are not necessarily pathological. Thus, one should practice caution when associating athletes’ elevated hair cortisol with poor mental health or disease. Hair cortisol analysis can contribute to a more complete understanding of how long-term cortisol elevation mediates stress-related effects on the health and performance of recreational exercisers and elite athletes. Nevertheless, it is crucial for exercise and sport scientists to consider whether their research questions can be adequately addressed, given that regular intense exercise results in substantially augmented hair cortisol levels.

Key words: Exercise, hair cortisol, physical activity, review, stress


           Key Points
  • Hair cortisol is a unique, non-invasive and painless means to capture long-term cortisol secretion.
  • Individuals expected to have elevated cortisol secretion (e.g. due to trauma) have increased hair cortisol.
  • Preliminary evidence shows that exercisers have higher hair cortisol levels as well.
  • Hair cortisol analysis can contribute to a more complete understanding of how long-term cortisol secretion mediates stress-related effects on health and performance.
  • There is a great dearth of knowledge about the relationship between sport, exercise and hair cortisol.
 
 
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