Childhood trauma is a non-specific risk factor for eating disorders (EDs). It has been suggested that this risk is exerted through trauma-induced long-lasting changes in the body stress response system. Therefore, we explored the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and of the sympathetic nervous system in adult ED patients with or without a history of childhood trauma exposure. Salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase, a marker of the sympathetic nervous system activity, were measured at awakening and after 15, 30 and 60 min in 35 women with EDs. The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) was employed to assess exposure to childhood trauma and, according to the CTQ cut-off scores, 21 ED women were classified as maltreated (Mal) participants and 14 women as no-maltreated (noMal) ED participants. Compared to noMal ED women, Mal ED participants showed significantly decreased cortisol awakening response (between group difference: p = 0.0003) and morning salivary alpha-amylase secretion (between group difference: p = 0.02). Present results confirm that the cortisol awakening response of adult ED patients with childhood trauma exposure is lower than that of adult ED patients without childhood trauma experiences and show for the first time that also the morning secretion of salivary alpha-amylase is decreased in adult ED patients who have been exposed to early traumatic experiences. These results point for the first time to a dampening in the basal activity of both components of the endogenous stress response system in childhood maltreated adult ED women.
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