Women who experience racial discrimination during pregnancy are likely to suffer significant health effects that will negatively impact their infants, according to new research from by the University of Colorado, Denver.
The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, may be the first to detect a direct link between ethnic discrimination and its impact on stress hormones in pregnant women and infants.
“Many people think that ethnic discrimination only has psychological impacts,” said the study’s lead author, Zaneta Thayer, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at University of Colorado, Denver. “But in fact, ethnic discrimination can impact physical health as well, possibly through changes in stress physiology functioning.”
Thayer, along with the study’s second author, Dr. Christopher Kuzawa, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, conducted the research in Auckland, New Zealand, where they examined 64 pregnant women of various ethnic backgrounds.
The participants completed questionnaires asking whether they had been being harassed, verbally or physically attacked, insulted, ignored, or condescended to based on their ethnicity.
To measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the researchers collected saliva samples from the women in the morning and the evening.
If overproduced, cortisol can lead to a wide variety of chronic health problems including cardiovascular disease and mental illness. Once the babies were born, their saliva was analyzed as well, along with their birth outcome information such as weight, length, head circumference, and length of gestation.
The women who had reported being discriminated against (one-third of all participants) showed higher levels of evening cortisol. Significantly, this connection remained after controlling for material deprivation, suggesting that the impacts of discrimination experience on maternal cortisol are independent of socioeconomic status.
For Thayer, who studies how social inequalities result in health inequalities, the findings indicate that discrimination may produce far-reaching physiological changes.
“To our knowledge this is the first study to report an association between maternal ethnic discrimination and maternal stress physiology in pregnancy or with stress in infancy,” Thayer said.
“The finding that offspring of women who experienced ethnic discrimination had greater cortisol reactivity in early infancy adds to the growing evidence that a woman’s emotional, physical, and mental well-being, during or around the time of pregnancy can influence the biology of her child,” she said.
Because of this, added Thayer, reducing ethnic discrimination may not only improve the health of those directly impacted but also that of future generations.
Source: University of Colorado, Denver