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Covid-19 and Cortisol: Your samples just

became really important..

Some of you may have read reports in the news about a study suggesting that cortisol levels are higher in people with COVID-19 compared with those without the disease; and also that the mortality risk from COVID-19 is greater in people with higher levels of cortisol:


The authors rightly question whether this increase in cortisol is related to the disease itself. However, it is important to acknowledge that cortisol is also influenced by psychological stress, and that stress-related increases in cortisol dysregulate the immune system. As such, the findings raise the intriguing possibility that increased cortisol may not be (or may not only be) a consequence of COVID-19, but may also play a causal role. In theory this could occur in two ways. First, by dysregulating the immune system, cortisol could increase our risk of COVID-19 infection i.e., people with higher levels of the hormone due to the experience of greater stress, may be more likely to become infected. Second, this dysregulation of the immune system may also influence whether people experience asymptomatic/mild disease versus much more severe disease. At present, the main factors associated with severe disease are characteristics that are not amenable to change (e.g.., age, gender, ethnicity). So they don’t offer avenues for modifying the progression or severity of the disease. Cortisol, on the other hand, can be modified by drug treatments as well as psychological and behavioural treatments. Therefore, if cortisol plays a role in disease progression, early intervention to reduce levels of the hormone could, in theory, stall or slow progression of the disease. 

Of course, these findings also tie in with the recent news that dexamethasone may be an effective treatment in some patients with COVID-19: Dexamethasone is a synthetic version of cortisol and usually results in a reduction in the body’s production of the hormone. Thus, pulling the findings from the two studies together suggests that the reason dexamethasone works in some patients is because it is dampening down the patient’s overproduction of cortisol. 

Regardless of whether elevated cortisol is a cause or consequence of COVID-19, the increased levels seen in this cohort of patients suggest that it is imperative that we rapidly work towards understanding the role of the hormone not only at the most severe end of the disease, but also examine whether it may also play a role in vulnerability to COVID-19, progression from asymptomatic to severe disease and the role of psychological stress and mental health in these processes. 

Your involvement in the COVID-19 Stress and Health Study will be critical in advancing our understanding in this area. To our knowledge, ours is the largest study in the world to have asked participants to collect hair samples for the measurement of cortisol. So, returning your hair samples to us next month with be vital. Look out for our emails to invite you to complete the survey again and on how to return your hair samples to us.

News from the UK COVID-19 Stress and Health Study: June 2020

The first wave of the study closed on 30th April 2020 with over 3000 people choosing to participate in just under 4 weeks. This phenomenal response from people across the UK has meant that we have already been able to make important contributions to our understanding of how the pandemic has been affecting you.

Our first finding relates to how the first few weeks of ‘lock-down’ have affected people emotionally. What the responses to the survey show is that the levels of stress, anxiety and depression people reported were significantly higher than we normally see in the UK. In fact, findings suggest that 64% of people reported experiencing symptoms of depression and 57% reported symptoms of anxiety, with younger people and women affected the most. These findings are currently being reviewed, but if you are interested in reading the pre-reviewed article (also known as a pre-print) you can find it


These findings, as well as results relating to the effects on keyworkers and individuals from Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have, at their request, been shared with Public Health England too.

Invitations to participate in the second phase of the study will be coming out in July 2020 and this will include instructions on how to send your hair samples back to us. Please look out for our emails!

Mental health in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic: early observations

News from the New Zealand COVID-19 Stress and Health Study

In New Zealand, a total of 789 people submitted responses on their stress and health during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also gave detailed information on their utilisation of healthcare during the three levels of lockdown and social distancing. The study was closed just in time, only a few days before the nation moved back to level 1 (normal life but with border restrictions and tracing).


New Zealanders learnt about the study on national news sites and the radio. Researchers were also supported by District Health Boards, university staff members and student groups, local, regional and city councils and by various other organisations nation-wide. As a small country, participants recruited their friends, colleagues and whānau (family members), which meant that responses were gathered from people all over New Zealand. News even made its way to the Beehive, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent her best wishes for the study.


The research team is now excited to be analysing the data, to see how the stress, health and general wellbeing of New Zealanders compared to the UK sample. 

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© 2020 COVID Stress Study