Surges in cortisol concentration during acute stress may increase cardiovascular risk. To better understand the interactions between cortisol and the autonomic nervous system, we determined the acute effects of hydrocortisone administration on cardiovagal baroreflex sensitivity (BRS), heart rate variability (HRV) and cardiovascular reactivity. In a randomized, placebo‐controlled, single‐blinded cross‐over study, 10 healthy males received either a single iv bolus of saline (placebo) or 200 mg of hydrocortisone, 1 week apart. Heart rate (HR), blood pressure (BP) and limb blood flow were monitored 3 h later, at rest and during the sequential infusion of sodium nitroprusside and phenylephrine (modified Oxford Technique), a cold pressor test and a mental arithmetic stress task. HRV was assessed using the square root of the mean of the sum of the squares of differences between successive R‐R intervals (rMSSD). Hydrocortisone markedly increased serum cortisol 3 h following infusion and also compared to placebo. In addition, hydrocortisone elevated resting HR (+7 ± 4 beats min−1; P < 0.001) and systolic BP (+5 ± 5 mmHg; P = 0.008); lowered cardiovagal BRS [geometric mean (95% confidence interval) 15.6 (11.1–22.1) ms/mmHg vs. 26.2 (17.4––39.5) ms/mmHg, P = 0.011] and HRV (rMSSD 59 ± 29 ms vs. 84 ± 38 ms, P = 0.004) and increased leg vasoconstrictor responses to cold pressor test (Δ leg vascular conductance −45 ± 20% vs. −23 ± 26%; P = 0.023). In young men, an acute cortisol surge is accompanied by increases in HR and BP, as well as reductions in cardiovagal BRS and HRV, potentially providing a pro‐arrhythmic milieu that may precipitate ventricular arrhythmia or myocardial infarction and increase cardiovascular risk.
- autonomic nervous system