DNA methylation and sex-specific expression of FKBP5 as correlates of one-month bedtime cortisol levels in healthy individuals

Richard S. Lee, Pamela B. Mahon, Peter P. Zandi, Mary E. McCaul, Xiaoju Yang, Utsav Bali, Gary S. Wand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Chronic exposure to cortisol is associated with cardiovascular, metabolic, and psychiatric disorders. Although cortisol can be readily measured from peripheral sources such as blood, urine, or saliva, multiple samplings spanning several days to weeks are necessary to reliably assess chronic cortisol exposure levels (referred to as cortisol load). Although cortisol levels in hair have been proposed as a measure of cortisol load, measurement is cumbersome and many people are not candidates due to short hair length and use of hair dyes. To date, there are no blood biomarkers that capture cortisol load. To identify a blood biomarker capable of integrating one-month cortisol exposure levels, 75 healthy participants provided 30+ days of awakening and bedtime saliva cortisol and completed psychosocial measures of anxiety, depression, and stress. Mean daily awakening and bedtime cortisol levels were then compared to CpG methylation levels, gene expression, and genotypes of the stress response gene FKBP5 obtained from blood drawn on the last day of the study. We found a correlation between FKBP5 methylation levels and mean 30+day awakening and bedtime cortisol levels (|r|≥0.32, p ≤ 0.006). We also observed a sex-specific correlation between bedtime cortisol levels and FKBP5 mRNA expression in female participants (r = 0.42, p = 0.005). Dividing the 30-day sampling period into four weekly bins showed that the correlations for both methylation and expression were not being driven by cortisol levels in the week preceding the blood draw. We also identified a female-specific association between FKBP5 mRNA expression and scores on the Beck Anxiety Inventory (r = 0.37, p = 0.013) and Beck Depression Inventory-II (r = 0.32, p = 0.033). Finally, DNA was genotyped at four SNPs, and variation in rs4713902 was shown to have an effect on FKBP5 expression under a codominant model (f = 3.41, p = 0.048) for females only. Our results suggest that blood FKBP5 DNA methylation and mRNA expression levels may be a useful marker for determining general or sex-specific 30-day cortisol load and justifies genome-wide approaches that can potentially identify additional cortisol markers with broader clinical utility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)164-173
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Allostatic
  • Cortisol
  • DNA methylation
  • FKBP5
  • Gene expression
  • Load
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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