Hair cortisol and stressful life events retrospective assessment in crack cocaine users (2012)

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2012 Nov;38(6):535-8. doi: 10.3109/00952990.2012.694538. Epub 2012 Jul 3.

Grassi-Oliveira R1, Pezzi JC, Daruy-Filho L, Viola TW, Francke ID, Leite CE, Brietzke E.



Some evidence suggests that altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning in cocaine users might play a role in the pathophysiology of substance abuse. This study aimed to investigate the relationship between exposure to negative life events and cortisol hair concentrations in crack cocaine users during the 3 months prior to admission to a detoxification program.


A total of 23 treatment-seeking, crack cocaine-dependent women were selected for this study 1 week after admission to an inpatient treatment at a locked treatment facility. The Paykel Life Events Scale measured the occurrence of stressful life events 3 months before admission. Hair cortisol concentration was measured during these three previous months.


The partial correlations, using severity of dependence as control variable, revealed that there is a positive association between hair cortisol concentration and the number of negative life events exposure 90 days (r = .56; p = .007) and 30 days (r = .42; p = .048) prior to admission at the hospital. One-way ANOVA suggests that hair cortisol levels and stress load significantly increase over 3 months prior to hospitalization.


The results of this study indicate that there is a positive association between measures of long-term cumulative cortisol secretion and the number of stressful events reported by women receiving inpatient treatment for crack cocaine dependence. Therefore, this study suggests that stress load can be objectively quantified and noninvasively assessed.


This study is the first to investigate HPA axis functioning using hair cortisol concentrations among crack cocaine-dependent users. It is a promising strategy to assess stress load in substance abusers.