Introduction: Insomnia disorder is a common sleep disorder and frequently emerges in the context of menopause, being associated with menopause-specific factors such as hot flashes and other psychosocial variables. Increased vulnerability to stress may also contribute to the development of insomnia in midlife women. Here, we aimed to investigate whether there are differences in physiological reactivity to acute psychosocial stress in women with menopausal insomnia compared with controls.
Methods: We investigated cortisol and heart rate [HR] responses to an acute experimental psychosocial stress (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST) approximately 1 h after waking in the morning in midlife women with ( n = 22) and without ( n = 16) DSM-IV insomnia disorder (Age: 50.05 ± 3.10 years), developed in the context of menopause.
Results: Despite similar perceived stress levels, women with insomnia showed blunted HR increases (~29% HR acceleration) to the TSST compared to controls (~44% HR acceleration) ( p = 0.026). No group differences in HR were detected at baseline or during post-task recovery. Cortisol stress responses were inconclusive, with most of the women (60%) failing to exhibit significant cortisol increases in response to the TSST. A greater magnitude of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) predicted the likelihood of being a non-responder ( p = 0.036), showing the confounding effect of CAR on cortisol stress responses.
Discussion: Women with menopausal insomnia show blunted cardiac responses to stress, suggesting alterations in the autonomic reactivity to acute stress. Whether these alterations are pre-existing or are a consequence of insomnia, needs to be determined.