A snippet of hair can reveal a pregnant person’s stress level and may one day help warn of unexpected birth problems, a study indicates.
Washington State University researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples of 53 women in their third trimester. Of that group, 13 women who had elevated cortisol levels later experienced unpredicted birth complications, such as an early birth or hemorrhaging.
While more research is needed with larger groups, this preliminary finding could eventually lead to a non-invasive way to identify those at risk for such complications. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“There was otherwise nothing about these women that would suggest a disease or anything else complicating the pregnancy. This confirmed some hypotheses that levels of stress, related specifically to cortisol levels, might be associated with adverse birth outcomes,” said Erica Crespi, a WSU developmental biologist and study’s corresponding author.
As part of the study, the participants all answered survey questions about their levels of psychological distress in addition to having cortisol measurements taken in the third trimester of pregnancy and after they gave birth. The women who experienced unexpected birth complications had elevated cortisol concentrations in their hair, a measure that indicates the stress hormone’s circulating levels in the body during the three months prior to collection.