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Salivary diurnal cortisol profiles in patients suffering from chronic breathlessness receiving supportive and palliative care services: A cross-sectional study

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Clow, A 
Smyth, N 


Chronic breathlessness is a common source of psychological and physical stress in patients with advanced or progressive disease, suggesting that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation may be prevalent. The aim of this study was to measure the salivary diurnal cortisol profile in patients receiving supportive and palliative care for a range of malignant and non-malignant conditions and to compare the profile of those experiencing moderate-to-severe disability due to breathlessness against that of patients with mild/no breathlessness and that of healthy controls. Saliva samples were collected over two consecutive weekdays at 3, 6, and 12 h after awakening in 49 patients with moderate-to-severe breathlessness [Medical Research Council (MRC) dyspnoea grade ≥3], 11 patients with mild/no breathlessness (MRC dyspnoea grade ≤2), and 50 healthy controls. Measures of breathlessness, stress, anxiety, depression, wellbeing and sleep were examined concomitantly. The diurnal cortisol slope (DCS) was calculated for each participant by regressing log-transformed cortisol values against collection time. Mean DCS was compared across groups using ANCOVA. Individual slopes were categorised into one of four categories: consistent declining, consistent flat, consistent ascending and inconsistent. Controlling for age, gender and socioeconomic status, the mean DCS was significantly flatter in patients with moderate-to-severe breathlessness compared to patients with mild/no breathlessness and healthy controls [F (2, 103) = 45.64, p < 0.001]. Furthermore, there was a higher prevalence of flat and ascending cortisol profiles in patients with moderate-to-severe breathlessness (23.4%) compared to healthy controls (0%). The only variable which correlated significantly with DCS was MRC dyspnoea grade (rs = 0.29, p < 0.05). These findings suggest that patients with moderate-to-severe breathlessness have evidence of HPA axis dysregulation and that this dysregulation may be related to the functional disability imposed by breathlessness.



cortisol, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, breathlessness, palliative care, dyspnoea, saliva

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This article presents independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR: DRF-2012-05-702).