Longitudinal associations between hair cortisol, PTSD symptoms, and sleep disturbances in a sample of firefighters with duty-related trauma exposure

Psychoneuroendocrinology

M.R. Soppa, T. Michaela, J. Lass-Hennemann, S. Haim-Nachum &  M.J.J.Lommen

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105449

Abstract

Several studies have found evidence of altered cortisol levels in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on these findings, it is assumed that these patients may show signs of cortisol dysregulation after trauma. Posttrauma cortisol levels are thus considered a potential biomarker of PTSD. However, longitudinal studies using indicators of long-term cortisol secretion such as hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) are scarce. The current study investigated prospective associations between HCC and PTSD symptoms in a sample of Dutch firefighters taking into account varying levels of work-related trauma severity. In addition, we assessed posttraumatic sleep disturbances as a secondary outcome measure to investigate whether effects generalize to this frequent comorbidity of PTSD. Three hundred seventy-one Dutch firefighters with a mean of 14.01 years of work experience were included in the analyses. Baseline assessment included the collection of hair samples and the measurement of work-related trauma severity, PTSD symptoms, and sleep disturbances. PTSD symptoms and sleep disturbance were re-assessed after six and twelve months. Multilevel analyses indicate a significant positive correlation between HCC and baseline PTSD symptoms in those with average or above-average work-related trauma severity. A similar pattern was evident for posttraumatic sleep disturbances at baseline. Moreover, higher HCC predicted more posttraumatic sleep disturbances after 6 months in participants with above-average work-related trauma severity. No other associations emerged for PTSD symptoms or posttraumatic sleep disturbances at six or twelve months. As such, our study supports the existence of a cross-sectional association between HCC and trauma symptoms, which may vary for different levels of subjective trauma severity. The longitudinal stability of this association should be reinvestigated by future research.

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