Exploring the multidimensional complex systems structure of the stress response and its relation to health and sleep outcomes

Publication date: Available online 6 June 2018
Source:Brain, Behavior, and Immunity
Author(s): Veronika Engert, Bethany E. Kok, Lara M.C. Puhlmann, Tobias Stalder, Clemens Kirschbaum, Filia Apostolakou, Chrysanthi Papanastasopoulou, Ioannis Papassotiriou, Panagiota Pervanidou, George P. Chrousos, Tania Singer
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional complex systems structure of the stress response and related health outcomes, we utilized network analysis in a sample of 328 healthy participants in two steps. In a first step, we focused on associations between measures of basal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning and subjective stress perceptions. In a second step, we linked these diverse stress-related measures to biomarkers and self-reports of health and sleep. Overall, measures clustered depending on their method of assessment, with high correlations between different saliva-based indices of diurnal cortisol regulation, between cortisol and cortisone levels in hair, between different biological health indicators (systemic inflammatory activity and body mass index), between state (experience sampling) and trait (questionnaire-based) self-reports of stress and wellbeing, and between different self-reports of sleep. Bridges between clusters suggested that if individuals perceive stress throughout their daily lives this is reflected in their total salivary cortisol output possibly contributing to long-term cortisol accumulation in hair. Likewise, earlier awakening time may contribute to cortisol accumulation in hair via an influence on awakening cortisol processes. Our results show that while meaningful connections between measures exist, stress is a highly complex construct composed of numerous aspects. We argue that network analysis is an integrative statistical approach to address the multidimensionality of the stress response and its effects on the brain and body. This may help uncover pathways to stress-related disease and serve to identify starting points for prevention and therapeutic intervention.