Cumulative Stress and Cortisol Disruption Among Black and Hispanic Pregnant Women in an Urban Cohort


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Abstract

While adult hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis functioning is thought to be altered by traumatic experiences, little data exist on the effects of cumulative stress on HPA functioning among pregnant women or among specific racial/ethnic groups. The goal of this study was to explore the effects of multiple social stressors on HPA axis functioning in a sample of urban Black (n = 68) and Hispanic (n = 132) pregnant women enrolled in the Asthma Coalition on Community, Environment, and Social Stress (ACCESS). Women were administered the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (R-CTS) survey, the Experiences of Discrimination (EOD) survey, the Crisis in Family Systems-Revised (CRISYS-R) negative life events survey, and the My Exposure to Violence (ETV) survey, which ascertains community violence exposure. A cumulative stress measure was derived from these instruments. Salivary cortisol samples were collected five times per day over three days in order to characterize diurnal salivary cortisol patterns. Repeated measures mixed models, stratified by race/ethnicity, were performed adjusting for education level, age, smoking status, body mass index and weeks pregnant at time of cortisol sampling. The majority of Hispanic participants (57%) had low cumulative stress, while Black participants had intermediate (35%) or high (41%) cumulative stress. Among Black but not Hispanic women, cumulative stress was associated with lower morning cortisol levels, including a flatter waking to bedtime rhythm. These analyses suggest that the combined effects of cumulative stressful experiences are associated with disrupted HPA functioning among pregnant women. The etiology of racial/ethnic differences in stress-induced HPA alterations warrants further research.

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