Although results of animal research show that interactions between stress and sex hormones are implicated in the development of affective disorders in women, translation of these findings to patients has been scarce. As a basic step toward advancing this field of research, we analyzed findings of studies which reported circulating cortisol levels in healthy women in the follicular vs. luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. We deemed this analysis critical not only to advance our understanding of basic physiology, but also as an important contrast to the findings of future studies evaluating stress and sex hormones in women with affective disorders. We hypothesized that cortisol levels would be lower in the follicular phase based on the proposition that changes in levels of potent GABAergic neurosteroids, including allopregnanolone, during the menstrual cycle dynamically change in the opposite direction relative to cortisol levels. Implementing strict inclusion criteria, we compiled results of high-quality studies involving 778 study participants to derive a standardized mean difference between circulating cortisol levels in the follicular vs. luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. In line with our hypothesis, our meta-analysis found that women in the follicular phase had higher cortisol levels than women in the luteal phase, with an overall Hedges’ g of 0.13 (p < 0.01) for the random effects model. No significant between-study difference was detected, with the level of heterogeneity in the small range. Furthermore, there was no evidence of publication bias. As cortisol regulation is a delicate process, we review some of the basic mechanisms by which progesterone, its potent metabolites, and estradiol regulate cortisol output and circulation to contribute to the net effect of higher cortisol in the follicular phase.

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Frontiers in Endocrinology
Department of Epidemiology

Hamidovic, A, Karapetyan, K. (Kristina), Serdarevic, F, Choi, S.H. (So Hee), Eisenlohr-Moul, T. (Tory), & Pinna, G. (2020). Higher circulating cortisol in the follicular vs. Luteal phase of the menstrual cycle: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Endocrinology (Vol. 11, pp. 1–12). doi:10.3389/fendo.2020.00311