The circadian system modulates the cortisol awakening response in humans

Nicole P. Bowles, Saurabh S. Thosar, Matthew P. Butler, Noal A. Clemons, La Troy D. Robinson, Omar H. Ordaz, Maya X. Herzig, Andrew W. McHill, Sean P.M. Rice, Jonathan Emens, Steven A. Shea

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: In humans, circulating cortisol usually peaks 30–60 min after awakening from nocturnal sleep, this is commonly referred to as the cortisol awakening response (CAR). We examined the extent to which the CAR is influenced by the circadian system, independent of behaviors including sleep. Materials and methods: We examined the CAR in 34 adults (20 female) using two complementary multiday in-laboratory circadian protocols performed in dim light, throughout which behavioral factors were uniformly distributed across the 24-hour circadian cycle. Protocol 1 consisted of 10 identical consecutive 5-hour 20-minute sleep/wake cycles, and protocol 2 consisted of 5 identical consecutive 18-hour sleep/wake cycles. Salivary melatonin was used as the circadian phase marker (0° = dim light melatonin onset). During each sleep/wake cycle, salivary cortisol was measured upon scheduled awakening and 50-minutes later, with the change in cortisol defined as the CAR. Cosinor analyses were used to detect any significant circadian rhythmicity in the CAR. In secondary analyses, we adjusted the models for time awake before lights on, total sleep time, percent of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and percent of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Results: Both protocols revealed a similar circadian rhythm in the CAR, with peaks occurring at a circadian phase corresponding to 3:40–3:45 a.m., with no detectable CAR during the circadian phases corresponding to the afternoon. In addition to the sinusoidal component of the circadian rhythm, total sleep time was also associated with the CAR for protocol 1. The percent of sleep spent in REM or NREM sleep were not associated with the CAR in either protocol. Conclusion: Our results show that the CAR exhibits a robust circadian rhythm that persists even after adjusting for prior sleep. Presuming that the CAR optimizes physiological responses to the anticipated stressors related to awakening, these findings may have implications for shift workers who wake up at unusual circadian phases. A blunted CAR in shift workers upon awakening in the evening may result in diminished responses to stressors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number995452
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
StatePublished - Nov 3 2022


  • ACTH
  • HPA-axis
  • awakening
  • chronic stress
  • circadian
  • cortisol
  • sleep
  • time of day

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'The circadian system modulates the cortisol awakening response in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this