The physiological and psychological mechanisms explaining the individual variability in the stress response are poorly understood. We tested the hypothesis that hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal (HPA) axis responses to colorectal stimulation affect HPA axis reactivity to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the visceral pain threshold, and perceived stress. We examined 31 healthy volunteers and 27 individuals with irritable bowel syndrome. According to the ACTH response to colorectal stimulation, the participants were classified into three groups: flattened, decreased, and increased. We found significant differences in the abdominal pain threshold, discomfort threshold, and sensitivity to anxiety among the groups. There were significant differences in the ACTH change and peak level after CRH administration among the groups. The area under the curve of the cortisol response to CRH was significantly different among the groups. The increased group showed a higher basal ACTH level, earlier peak level in the CRH administration test, and higher stress rating during the experiment. The increased group had an exaggerated psychological and physiological stress response, whereas the decreased group had a higher anticipatory endocrine response, stress, and sensitivity to anxiety. Further studies are needed to determine factors including gut microbiota on the individual difference in HPA response.
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