Kalliokoski, O., Jellestad, F. K., Murison, R. 2019. A systematic review of studies utilizing hair glucocorticoids as a measure of stress suggests the marker is more appropriate for quantifying short-term stressors. Scientific Reports 9, 11997.
Quantitating glucocorticoids (GCs) in hairs is a popular method for assessing chronic stress in studies of humans and animals alike. The cause-and-effect relationship between stress and elevated GC levels in hairs, sampled weeks later, is however hard to prove. This systematic review evaluated the evidence supporting hair glucocorticoids (hGCs) as a biomarker of stress. Only a relatively small number of controlled studies employing hGC analyses have been published, and the quality of the evidence is compromised by unchecked sources of bias. Subjects exposed to stress mostly demonstrate elevated levels of hGCs, and these concentrations correlate significantly with GC concentrations in serum, saliva and feces. This supports hGCs as a biomarker of stress, but the dataset provided no evidence that hGCs are a marker of stress outside of the immediate past. Only in cases where the stressor persisted at the time of hair sampling could a clear link between stress and hGCs be established.