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October 22, 2015

Biological Response to Stress: Sexual Orientation Plays a Major Role

Montreal, October 22, 2015 – Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals do not react to stressful situations in the same way as heterosexuals. These are the findings of a study conducted by a team of researchers at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress of the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Île-de-Montréal), affiliated with Université de Montréal.

Previous research in this area has demonstrated that biological sex and socio-cultural gender influence how our bodies react to stress and how much of the stress hormone cortisol is produced. Men generally react more strongly to stressful situations than women do. However, it is not clear whether sexual orientation might have an impact on reactivity to stress.

“Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals (LGB) frequently report increased distress due to stressful situations associated with the stigma of their sexual orientation. We wanted to know whether there is a difference in cortisol levels between LGB and heterosexuals in response to a stress test,” stated Robert-Paul Juster, the study's first author.

Eighty-seven adults (average age = 25 years) were grouped according to sexual orientation: lesbian/bisexual women (n=20), heterosexual women (n=21), gay/bisexual men (n=26), and heterosexual men (n=20). Salivary cortisol levels were collected throughout a visit during which participants were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test.

The results showed:

1.    A more significant increase in cortisol among heterosexual men than among heterosexual women.

2.    That sexual orientation is also a significant factor in stress responsivity, since cortisol levels were found to be higher among:

•    Gay/bisexual women, compared to heterosexual women

•    Heterosexual men, compared to gay/bisexual men

“This is the first time that a study has demonstrated that reactivity to stress depends not only on sex but also sexual orientation,” stated Jens Pruessner, senior co-author and a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. “This study also opens the door to further research on the physiological functioning of sexual minorities,” he concluded.

About the authors

Robert-Paul Juster is a PhD student in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University and is part of the team at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress of the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal, affiliated with Université de Montréal.

Sonia Lupien is researcher at Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal) and a Full Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Université de Montréal. She founded and is the Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. humanstress.ca.

Jens C. Pruessner is a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute (CIUSSS-de-l’Ouest –de-l’Ile-de-Montréal) and an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University.

Jim Pfaus is a researcher with the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University.


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