The HPA axis is involved in the neurobiology of mood disorders and functional illnesses, including anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, insomnia, posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, major depressive disorder, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and alcoholism. Antidepressants, which are routinely prescribed for many of these illnesses, serve to regulate HPA axis function.
Sex differences are prevalent in humans with respect to psychiatric stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression, where women experience these disorders more often than men. Particularly in rodents, it has been shown that females may lack the ability to tolerate as well as process stress (particularly for chronic stress) due to possible down regulation of GR expression as well as a deficiency of FKBP51 binding protein in the cytosol. By constantly activating the HPA axis, this could lead to higher instances of stress and disorders that would only get worse with chronic stress. Specifically in rodents, females show greater activation of the HPA axis following stress than males. These differences also likely arise due to the opposing actions that certain sex steroids have, such as testosterone and oestrogen. Oestrogen functions to enhance stress-activated ACTH and CORT secretion while testosterone functions to decrease HPA axis activation and works to inhibit both ACTH and CORT responses to stress. However, more studies are required to better understand the underlying basis of these sex differences.
Experimental studies have investigated many different types of stress, and their effects on the HPA axis in many different circumstances. Stressors can be of many different types—in experimental studies in rats, a distinction is often made between “social stress” and “physical stress”, but both types activate the HPA axis, though via different pathways. Several monoamineneurotransmitters are important in regulating the HPA axis, especially dopamine, serotoninand norepinephrine (noradrenaline). There is evidence that an increase in oxytocin, resulting for instance from positive social interactions, acts to suppress the HPA axis and thereby counteracts stress, promoting positive health effects such as wound healing.
The HPA axis is a feature of mammals and other vertebrates. For example, biologists studying stress in fish showed that social subordination leads to chronic stress, related to reduced aggressive interactions, to lack of control, and to the constant threat imposed by dominant fish. Serotonin (5HT) appeared to be the active neurotransmitter involved in mediating stress responses, and increases in serotonin are related to increased plasma α-MSH levels, which causes skin darkening (a social signal in salmonoid fish), activation of the HPA axis, and inhibition of aggression. Inclusion of the amino acid L-tryptophan, a precursor of 5HT, in the feed of rainbow troutmade the trout less aggressive and less responsive to stress. However, the study mentions that plasma cortisol was not affected by dietary L-tryptophan. The drug LY354740(also known as Eglumegad, an agonist of the metabotropic glutamate receptors 2 and 3) has been shown to interfere in the HPA axis, with chronic oral administration of this drug leading to markedly reduced baseline cortisol levels in bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata); acute infusion of LY354740 resulted in a marked diminution of yohimbine-induced stress response in those animals.
Studies on people show that the HPA axis is activated in different ways during chronic stress depending on the type of stressor, the person’s response to the stressor and other factors. Stressors that are uncontrollable, threaten physical integrity, or involve trauma tend to have a high, flat diurnal profile of cortisol release (with lower-than-normal levels of cortisol in the morning and higher-than-normal levels in the evening) resulting in a high overall level of daily cortisol release. On the other hand, controllable stressors tend to produce higher-than-normal morning cortisol. Stress hormone release tends to decline gradually after a stressor occurs. In post-traumatic stress disorder there appears to be lower-than-normal cortisol release, and it is thought that a blunted hormonal response to stress may predispose a person to develop PTSD.
It is also known that HPA axis hormones are related to certain skin diseases and skin homeostasis. There is evidence shown that the HPA axis hormones can be linked to certain stress related skin diseases and skin tumors. This happens when HPA axis hormones become hyperactive in the brain.