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Chronic Stress Can Lead to Biological Changes in Pregnant Women

Update Date: Aug 12, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

Pregnancy can be an extremely stressful time in a woman's life, especially if she does not have a strong support group. Support, which ranges from family and friends to financial means is important for both mother and child. In a new study, researchers looked at how chronic stress affected poor, low-income, minority pregnant women. They discovered that for this group of women, chronic stress actually led to underlying biological changes.

For this study, the researchers from Emory's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing focused on finding possible variables that lead to high preterm birth rates in minority and low-income women. Headed by the associate dean for research at the Nursing School, Elizabeth Corwin, Ph.D., the research team recruited 203 pregnant women. The women gave self-reported levels of stress while the researchers measured their levels of inflammation and cortisol, the hormone related to stress. They discovered that for women with fewer financial means who were minorities, their levels of stress and total cortisol were higher in comparison to women who were not from low-income households. The poorer women also had a harder time controlling their inflammation.

Corwin stated, "With 30,000 more African-American infants born prematurely each year compared to Caucasian infants, it is very clear there is a difference in birth outcomes in the U.S. This health disparity appears related to the exposure of minority and low-income women to chronic stress, which wears on the health of these women prior to pregnancy as well as during and after pregnancy."

The researchers noted that for women with low stress, their bodies were better capable of controlling inflammation using the feedback cycle. The cytokine-cortisol feedback cycle is a mechanism that the body uses to limit the production of inflammatory mediators, which is triggered by stressors, such as trauma, infection and anxiety. Cortisol helps limit these mediators when they are fighting inflammation. The researchers discovered that for women who experienced more stress and were from low-income households, the feedback system did not work the same. For minority women, the feedback system does not appear to respond to cortisol. Inflammation is then poorly regulated.

"We believe that the longstanding mystery of why low-income and minority women have poorer birth outcomes, including high rates of premature birth, may be related to this loss of control over inflammation and cortisol production," explained Corwin according to Medical Xpress. "This dysregulation carries the potential for significant health risks for women and their infants. Further research and interventions are essential in this very critical area."

The study was published in Psychoneuroendocrincology

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