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Prenatal Stress and the Cortisol Awakening Response in African-American and Caucasian Women in the Third Trimester of Pregnancy

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Objectives Prior studies have shown significant racial disparities in psychosocial stressors for pregnant women. One physiological mechanism by which prenatal stress is expressed is via the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol, which itself differs by race. In this study, we examine differences in cortisol awakening response (CAR) for African-American and Caucasian pregnant women during late pregnancy, particularly whether racial disparities are evident after accounting for measures of psychosocial stress. Methods During their third trimester of pregnancy (32–40 weeks of gestation), we asked women to self-collect salivary samples at home over 2 days. We then measured salivary cortisol across the day for 30 pregnant women (18 Caucasian; 12 African-American) to examine the CAR by race and by multiple measures of self-reported psychosocial stress, including perceived discrimination. Results Although the women in our sample showed normative cortisol diurnal rhythms (high on waking, peak 30 min post-waking, lowest at bedtime), we found that African-American women had blunted (smaller) awakening responses compared to Caucasian women (p < 0.05). The CAR was significantly larger in Caucasian women compared to African-American women even after accounting for covariates in a multivariate equation. However, when we added measures of psychosocial stress to the multivariate equation, higher levels of stress were significantly associated with a smaller CAR (p < 0.05), and the association between maternal race and CAR was no longer significant. Conclusions Our results add to a growing body of evidence that racial differences in the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis are associated with psychosocial stress during pregnancy.

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This work was supported by National Institutes of Health/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant # 1 K12 HD050121–02, Women’s Reproductive Health Research Program, and an Evergreen Invitational Women’s Health Grant Initiative Award, both awarded to Ann Borders. It was also supported by the NorthShore University HealthSystem Auxiliary Research Scholar Award and the NorthShore Research Career Development Award.

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Correspondence to Clarissa D. Simon.

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Simon, C.D., Adam, E.K., Holl, J.L. et al. Prenatal Stress and the Cortisol Awakening Response in African-American and Caucasian Women in the Third Trimester of Pregnancy. Matern Child Health J 20, 2142–2149 (2016).

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