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OBJECTIVE: Because only the free fraction of serum cortisol can readily access glucocorticoid receptors, we investigated whether or not a gender-related difference in serum free cortisol (FC) exists in the basal and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-stimulated state.

METHODS: Serum total cortisol (TC) and FC were measured in 323 subjects (175 men; 148 women). Additionally, the low-dose 1-μg ACTH test was performed in 56 subjects (30 women, 26 men). Subjects were healthy volunteers, recruited in a preventive medicine screening program and an outpatient clinic.

RESULTS: Overall, basal serum TC and FC level were ~18 and ~33%, respectively, higher in men than in women (TC, 14.5 ± 0.33 μg/dL vs. 12.3 ± 0.33 μg/dL; P<.0001; FC, 0.68 ± 0.02 μg/dL vs. 0.51 ± 0.02 μg/dL; P<.0001). The higher FC in men relative to women was apparent across a wide age range (17 to 86 years) and persisted after adjustment for age and body mass index. The FC fraction (%FC, out of TC) was concordantly higher in men (5.4 ± 0.09% vs. 4.8 ± 0.3%; P = .046). FC was not related to the estimated menopausal status (women age below and above 47, 50, or 53 years). ACTH-stimulated FC levels were significantly higher in men compared to women, as reflected by the area under the response curve (49.4 ± 3.4 μg × min vs. 39.6 ± 2.2 μg × min; P = .0014).

CONCLUSION: Gender is an unrecognized determinant of serum FC in humans. The possibility of lifelong exposure to the higher bioactive fraction of cortisol under basal conditions or daily stress involving ACTH stimulation should be further investigated in the context of gender-related phenotypic features such as "android" (visceral) fat deposition and longevity.

ABBREVIATIONS: ACTH = adrenocorticotropic hormone BMI = body mass index CBG = cortisol-binding globulin FC = free cortisol HPA = hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal TC = total cortisol.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1415-1421
Number of pages7
JournalEndocrine Practice
Issue number12
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016


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