Mezentsef A, Jackson P, Baig U, Fairclough JL, Brooks C and Mitroka J*
The objective of this study was to evaluate stress in health-studies students over time periods when classes are not in session (Summer) and are in session (Fall) using both a survey instrument and hair cortisol levels. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. Chronic elevations in cortisol are associated with adverse effects on the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and central nervous system. As such, cortisol levels can serve as a biomarker for stress. Hair is a particularly useful matrix for measuring cortisol in the body since it grows at a uniform rate, about 1 cm/month, and thereby provides a time-averaged index of exposure to cortisol. A small bundle of hair (about 50 strands) was collected as close to the scalp as possible from Nursing and Pharmacy students at the beginning of the Fall semester (representing hair grown over the Summer when no classes were in session) and again at the end of Fall semester (representing hair grown during the semester, when classes were in session). A three cm-portion of each hair bundle was cut from the scalp end, ground, extracted, and analyzed by LC/MS/MS. The students also completed a survey to provide subjective feedback about perceived stress levels. These surveys were completed at the time of the hair collections. The analytical results showed no differences in hair cortisol concentrations between Summer and Fall or between Pharmacy and Nursing students. Perceived stress levels; however, were higher in Fall than Summer and somewhat higher in pharmacy students than nursing students during the Fall. The results of this study suggest that health-studies students experience psychological stress during the time classes are in session, but this perceived stress may not result in concomitant elevations in cortisol.