Study Finds Racial Discrimination Has a Major Impact on Stress Levels in Teens

Scientists already know that the stress caused by racial discrimination is related to a host of chronic health conditions, but less is known about which types of discrimination are most harmful.

To answer that question, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology surveyed 100 adolescents aged 13-19 about their experiences with institutional, peer, educational, and cumulative discrimination.

They measured their salivary cortisol five times a day over three days and found that teens who experienced peer discrimination — racial discrimination from other teens — had unhealthy levels of the so-called stress hormone cortisol circulating in their bodies throughout the day. Disruptions in cortisol patterns can lead to unhealthy cortisol levels in the body, which is connected to many chronic health conditions.

In healthy people, cortisol is highest in the morning, which helps us feel alert and awake notes Rebecca Hasson, associate professor of movement science and director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Cortisol falls gradually as the day wears on, and this slope is called the diurnal pattern. But stressors can disrupt that pattern and blunt that slope, so cortisol is lower in the morning but doesn’t fall as much throughout the day.

“That’s when it becomes harmful,” Dr. Hasson said, and that’s what happened to the teens who reported more peer discrimination. “We know this can lead to increased rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes risk, anxiety and depression, almost any sort of chronic disease you can think of is negatively impacted by unhealthy cortisol patterns.”

The full study, “Racial Discrimination and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Dysregulation in Adolescents With Overweight and Obesity: Does Context Matter?” was published on the website of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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