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

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

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 and ethnic groups. Individuals may be increasingly vulnerable to physiological alterations when experiencing cumulative effects of multiple stressors. These effects may be particularly relevant in urban poor communities where exposure to multiple stressors is more prevalent. 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). Pregnant women were administered the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (R-CTS) survey to assess interpersonal violence, 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 exposure to community violence. A cumulative stress measure was derived from these instruments. Salivary cortisol samples were collected five times per day over three days to assess area under the curve (AUC), morning change, and basal awakening response 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 exposure, while the majority of Black participants had intermediate (35%) or high (41%) cumulative stress exposure. Results showed that 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. While the etiology of racial/ethnic differences in stress-induced HPA alterations is not clear, this warrants further research.


Published In

Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 2, 4, 326-334.