Cortisol levels and depression in men and women using heroin and cocaine

Amy B. Wisniewski, Todd T. Brown, Majnu John, Joseph Cofranceso, Elizabeth T. Golub, Erin P. Ricketts, Gary Wand, Adrian S. Dobs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Abnormalities in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are well documented in men using illicit drugs and/or infected with HIV; however, less is known about HPA function, or the health consequence of HPA dysfunction, in their female counterparts. People with depression exhibit hypercortisolemia, and depression is common in people with HIV or substance use problems. The current study investigated cortisol secretion in 209 demographically matched men and women, stratified by their HIV and drug use status. Self-reported depressive symptoms were evaluated using a standardized, validated questionnaire (CES-D). Women reported more depressive symptoms than men (p=.01). Male and female drug users exhibited higher cortisol concentrations (p=.03), and were more likely to report depressive symptoms (p=.04), than non-users. Depression was related to elevated cortisol concentrations for the study population (p=.03), and women with elevated cortisol concentrations were significantly more depressed than all other participants (p=.05). While it is unknown whether high cortisol concentrations precede depressive symptoms or vice versa, these data indicate that higher cortisol concentrations are associated with depressive symptoms in heroin and cocaine users, and that this association is more pronounced in women than men. HIV status did not act in an additive or synergistic way with drug use for either cortisol or CES-D measures in the current study. Unique therapies to treat the endocrine and mental health consequences of illicit drug use in men and women deserve consideration as depressive symptoms, and high cortisol concentrations associated with depressive symptoms, differ by gender.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)250-255
Number of pages6
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2006


  • AIDS
  • Adrenal
  • Cocaine
  • Glucocorticoid
  • Opiate
  • Sex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry

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