Childhood trauma severity is associated with objective sleep disturbance but not elevated cortisol.
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is associated with a number of long-term health outcomes, including sleep disturbance, mental health, and increased arousal. It is also posited that the HPA axis becomes dysregulated following exposure to traumatic events, particularly with the release of cortisol. However, the extent to which cortisol levels are related to objectively-assessed sleep in those who experience CSA is unknown. The present study sought to investigate the relationship between childhood trauma severity, waking cortisol, and objective sleep. N=55 cis-gendered women (ages of 18-40) from Harris County were included. Participants completed the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire to assess for trauma severity, collected waking cortisol immediately upon wake and 30 minutes after, and wore wrist actigraphy for 7 days. Results showed that CTQ total scores were positively correlated with sleep onset latency (SOL) (r = .35, p = .01) but not with wake after sleep onset (WASO). CTQ-SA subscale scores were negatively correlated with WASO (r = .32, p = .02). Cortisol concentration was not significantly correlated with CTQ scores or previous nights' sleep. A discrepancy between self-reported sleep and actigraphy is possible, as well as blunting of cortisol following exposure to childhood trauma. Further research should be focused on replicating the actigraphy and cortisol data with a larger sample size with a control group. Potential interactions with substances, including sleep aids, should also be explored.