Childhood abuse is associated with increased hair cortisol levels among urban pregnant women

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Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis activity is known to be altered following events such as childhood abuse. However, despite potential adverse consequences for the offspring of women who have experienced abuse, very little is known about altered HPA axis activity during pregnancy.


During pregnancy, 180 women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds reported on their exposure to emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 11, and general post-traumatic stress symptoms (ie, not limited to childhood years or abuse experiences). Around delivery, they provided hair samples for the assessment of cortisol levels during pregnancy. Hair cortisol was assessed for each pregnancy trimester. The effect of childhood abuse on hair cortisol was assessed using mixed-effects analyses of covariance models allowing for within-subject correlated observations, and were first performed in the entire sample and subsequently stratified by race/ethnicity.


Controlling for post-traumatic stress symptoms, hair cortisol levels varied by history of child abuse, F(2,166)=3.66, p=0.028. Childhood physical and/or sexual abuse was associated with greater hair cortisol levels, t(166)=2.65, p=0.009, compared with no history of abuse. Because childhood rates of abuse and hair cortisol levels varied by race/ethnicity, analyses were stratified by race/ethnicity. The associations between history of abuse and cortisol levels were only significant among black women, F(2,23)=5.37, p=0.012.


Childhood abuse, especially physical and/or sexual abuse, is associated with differences in cortisol production during pregnancy, particularly among black women. Future research should investigate how these differences impact physical and mental health outcomes among offspring of affected women.

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