Biochemical markers for the circadian rhythm were studied in patients treated at the ICU (intensive care unit) of two regional hospitals. A normal rhythm is characterized by a relatively higher melatonin and a lower cortisol excretion at night. Disturbances affect sleep, mood and cognitive performance. All urine excreted between 07:00 and 22:00 hours (day) and between 22:00 and 07:00 hours (night) was collected and sampled throughout the entire ICU period (median, 10 days) in 16 patients for the excretion of 6-SMT (6-sulphatoxymelatonin), which is a metabolite of melatonin, and free cortisol. The overall excretion of 6-SMT was slightly lower and the cortisol excretion higher than reported for healthy reference populations. Mechanical ventilation was associated with a markedly lower 6-SMT excretion (median, 198 ng/h) compared with periods without such help (555 ng/h; P<0.0001), whereas infusion of adrenergic drugs increased the 6-SMT excretion (P<0.01). Five patients (31%) showed a virtually absent melatonin excretion for 24 h or more. The diurnal rhythms were consistently or periodically disturbed in 65% and 75% of the patients. These alterations cannot be explained by excessive exposure to light at night. In conclusion, there was hyposecretion of melatonin during mechanical ventilation, an overall high cortisol excretion and a disturbed diurnal rhythm of both of these hormones in most patients treated in two ICU departments.

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