Stress, hormones, and UN soldiers

It is possible to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol not only in blood but also in saliva. Linköping physician Elisabeth Aardal-Eriksson has further developed a saliva test to make it reliable and easy to use, not only in hospitals but also in the field. The findings are presented in a dissertation at Linköping University, Sweden. The researcher has also found that the corisol content of saliva is related to the occurrence of so-called posttraumatic symptoms of stress.

In the first section of her dissertation, Elisabeth Aardal-Eriksson has developed the method for measuring, tested it in connection with a standardized loading of the stress system, and, in a smaller study, combined it with psychological self-assessment (in which the person being tested provides his/her own information about how he/she feels). This self-assessment also included questions about possible posttraumatic symptoms such as nightmares and painful memories.

The second section of the thesis consists of two studies of Swedish UN soldiers who have served in Bosnia. In one of these studies cortisol and stress levels were metered both before and at different times after their tour of duty in Bosnia. In another study cortisol levels and stress reactions were investigated in a group of UN soldiers involved in a landmine accident in Lebanon.

The before/after study showed that there is a correlation between the hormone levels of a UN soldier prior to serving in Bosnia and how bad they felt afterward.

“Those who had a high degree of post-traumatic symptoms often had lower cortisol levels in the initial tests. This can be interpreted as meaning that they were less able to load their stress system when confronted by difficult situations,” says Elisabeth Aardal-Eriksson.

Cortisol tests alone are not sufficient today to assess a person’s ability to cope with stress, she points out. Factors like family conditions, work situation, genetic make-up, and earlier life experience also influence who can cope with extremely difficult conditions and who cannot. But measuring cortisol in saliva can be one of several ways to clinically assess patients with post-traumatic stress.

Saliva samples could also replace blood samples when it comes to measuring hormone levels in connection with hormonal diseases. This would be of great value, not least for children, severely ill patients, and people who are afraid of giving blood samples.

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