According to a study, a snippet of hair can reveal the stress levels of a pregnant person and one day warn of unexpected birth complications.
Researchers at Washington State University measured the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples from 53 women in the third trimester. Of this group, 13 women who had elevated cortisol levels later experienced unforeseen birth complications such as premature birth or bleeding.
While further research is needed in larger groups, this preliminary finding could ultimately lead to a non-invasive method of identifying those at risk of such complications. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“Otherwise, these women had nothing clinically that suggested something else would make the pregnancy complicated. This confirms some hypotheses that stress, particularly as measured by the cortisol level, could be linked to adverse birth outcomes.”
– Erica Crespi, WSU developmental biologist and corresponding author of the study
As part of the study, all participants answered survey questions about their levels of psychological distress and had cortisol measurements taken in their third trimester and after giving birth. The women who experienced unexpected birth complications showed increased cortisol concentrations in their hair, a measure indicating the circulating stress hormone levels in the body during the three months prior to the sample collection.
Cortisol, a steroid hormone, rises in humans and many animals to regulate the body’s response to stress. However, sustained high cortisol levels are associated with serious health issues such as hypertension and diabetes. During pregnancy, cortisol levels naturally increase two to four times and peak in the third trimester. However, the measurements in this study showed an even higher increase in cortisol levels in women who experienced unexpected birth complications.
“If this finding is confirmed, it could be a non-invasive way to gain insight into who might be at risk because it’s information we didn’t have from the survey,” said co-author Sara Waters, a WSU developmental researcher. “We couldn’t capture this just by asking people about their stress levels.”
Two months after giving birth, the group that experienced birth complications continued to show elevated cortisol levels and reported ongoing stress, anxiety, and depression in the survey. After six months, their cortisol remained elevated, but they began reporting lower psychological distress in the survey, which the authors noted could be a sign of recovery.
The researchers also stated that it is necessary to do more to improve healthcare and support systems for pregnant women and new parents. This study also aims to remind expectant and new mothers to prioritize their health.
“It’s very easy to sacrifice our own health and well-being for our children, especially when resources feel scarce,” said Waters. “But our ability to parent is predicated on our needs being met – like the saying goes, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’”
An interdisciplinary research team at WSU was involved in this study. Co-authors include Crespi, Waters, first author Jennifer Madigan, a Ph.D. candidate in stress physiology research, Maria Gartstein, psychology professor, Jennifer Mattera, psychology Ph.D. student, and Chris Connelly, associate professor of kinesiology. This research was supported by a WSU Grand Challenges Grant as well as interdisciplinary grants from the WSU College of Arts and Sciences and the WSU Office of Research.
Washington State University
Madigan, J.A., et al. (2023). Perinatal Hair Cortisol Concentrations Linked with Psychological Distress and Unforeseen Birth Complications. Psychoneuroendocrinology. doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2023.106921.