According to a study, a snippet of hair can reveal a pregnant person’s stress levels and warn of unexpected birth problems one day. Researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples from 53 women in their third trimester. Of this group, 13 women whose cortisol levels were elevated later suffered unforeseen birth complications such as premature birth or bleeding.
While further research is needed in larger groups, this preliminary finding could eventually lead to a non-invasive method of identifying those at risk of such complications. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Otherwise, there was no evidence in these women that a disease or anything else could complicate the pregnancy. This confirmed some hypotheses that stress levels, particularly in relation to cortisol levels, could be associated with unfavorable birth outcomes.
Cortisol and Pregnancy Complications
As part of the study, all participants answered questions about their level of psychological distress and had cortisol measurements taken in the third trimester of pregnancy and postpartum. Those women who experienced unexpected birth complications had elevated levels of cortisol in their hair, a measure that indicates circulating stress hormone levels in the body during the three months prior to delivery. These women also reported feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, but on average, only high cortisol levels during pregnancy showed a strong association with unfavorable birth outcomes.
Cortisol, a steroid hormone, rises in humans and many animals to regulate the body’s response to stress. However, persistently high cortisol levels have been linked to serious health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. During pregnancy, cortisol levels naturally increase two- to four-fold, peaking in the third trimester. However, the measurements in this study showed even more pronounced elevated cortisol levels in the women who had unexpected birth complications.
Two months after birth, the group that experienced birth complications continued to have elevated cortisol levels and gave survey responses that indicated ongoing stress, anxiety and depression.After six months, their cortisol remained elevated, but they began to report lower levels of psychological distress in the survey, which the authors believe could be a sign of recovery. Finding ways to reduce stress around childbirth could help improve outcomes for both infants and their mothers. They point out that unfavorable birth outcomes are on the rise, especially in the US. The U.S. is also known to have one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries, with black women and other women of color disproportionately affected by deaths, and this study also serves as a reminder to expectant and new mothers to prioritize their health.
Measures to Reduce Stress
Even though pregnancy can be very stressful, it is important to take steps to minimize stress levels. Make sure you get enough sleep, regular moderate exercise and plenty of rest. In addition, stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation can be helpful in providing relaxation. A healthy diet can also reduce stress. Get enough B vitamins and foods containing magnesium, calcium and potassium, as these contribute to normal nervous system function and reduce fatigue. Nuts, bananas, avocados, eggs and spinach are considered good anti-stress foods.