We examined whether lifetime exposure to stressful and traumatic events alters hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning, as indexed by hair cortisol, regardless of associated psychopathology, among pregnant women of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. 180 women provided hair samples for measurement of integrated cortisol levels throughout pregnancy and information regarding their lifetime exposure to stressful and traumatic life events. Results indicate that increased lifetime exposure to traumatic events was associated with significantly greater hair cortisol over the course of pregnancy. Similarly, greater lifetime exposure to stressful and traumatic events weighted by reported negative impact (over the previous 12 months) was associated with significantly greater hair cortisol during pregnancy. All analyses controlled for maternal age, education, body mass index (BMI), use of inhaled corticosteroids, race/ethnicity, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms. Following stratification by race/ethnicity, associations between stressful and traumatic life events and hair cortisol were found among Black women only. This is the first study to consider associations between lifetime stress exposures and hair cortisol in a sociodemographically diverse sample of pregnant women. Increased exposure to stressful and traumatic events, independent of PTSD and depressive symptoms, was associated with higher cortisol production, particularly in Black women. Future research should investigate the influence of such increased cortisol exposure on developmental outcomes among offspring.
- Hair cortisol
- post-traumatic stress disorder