The pituitary-adrenal axis had historically been considered a representative model for circadian rhythms. A recently developed portable collection device has provided the opportunity to evaluate free cortisol profiles using the microdialysis approach in individuals free to conduct their day-to-day activities in their own surroundings.
Two separate experiments were conducted in healthy male volunteers. The total and subcutaneous (SC) free cortisol levels were measured at 10-minute intervals for a 24-hour period in one experiment, and the SC free cortisol levels were measured at 20-minute interval for 72 consecutive hours in free-living individuals in the second experiment.
The characteristic circadian rhythm was evident in both serum total and SC free cortisol, with the lowest levels achieved and maintained in the hours surrounding sleep onset and the peak levels occurring in every individual around waking. In all free-living individuals, the circadian rhythm was consistent across the 72-hour period, despite a wide range of activities. All the participants also showed increased cortisol after the consumption of lunch. The lowest levels during all 24-hour periods were observed during the hours after lights off, at the onset of sleep.
To the best of our knowledge, the present study is the first to report up to three consecutive 24-hour measurements of SC free cortisol in healthy individuals. We believe our study is a landmark study that paves the way for ambulatory monitoring of free cortisol profiles continuously for a period of 72 hours in free-living individuals performing their day-to-day activities whether healthy or with diseases involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.