PTSD associated with higher cortisol levels in pregnancy

Researchers investigating the effect of past stressors and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on pregnant women have found that those with a dissociative type of PTSD that is often related to childhood abuse or trauma had cortisol levels up to ten times higher than their peers.

According to Julia Seng, professor of nursing at the University of Michigan, US, and lead author of the study, said that these toxic levels of cortisol may contribute to health problems in their children.

She explained: “We know from research on the developmental origins of health and disease that the baby's first environment in its mother's body has implications for health across the lifespan.

“Higher exposure to cortisol may signal the foetus to adapt in ways that help survival, but don't help health and longevity. This finding is very useful because it helps us know which women are most likely to exhibit the highest level of stress and stress hormones during pregnancy and postpartum.”

Cortisol is referred to as the stress hormone as it is released in stressful situations as part of the ‘flight or fight’ response. The researchers explained that cortisol levels that stay high are linked to serious health problems, including heart disease and high blood pressure. Prolonged high levels of the hormone can also fuel weight gain, depression and anxiety, among other problems.

The effect of elevated cortisol on a developing foetus isn't yet well understood, but high cortisol and stress can also contribute to preterm birth.

Roughly eight per cent of pregnant women taking part in the study had PTSD, while approximately 14 per cent of that group had the more complex dissociative PTSD, which was associated with higher cortisol.

Dr Seng said: “It's been a mystery in our field why cortisol is sometimes high with PTSD and sometimes not. This finding that in pregnancy it's only the dissociative subgroup that has high cortisol gives us more to go on for future research.”