African-American youth whose anxiety levels are elevated by the everyday struggles they encounter will overproduce the stress hormone cortisol into adulthood, according to new research by the University of Michigan.
Researchers from the U-M School of Public Health and Medical School found that anxiety among females and alcohol use among males in their teens predict their cortisol output seven years later.
“This paper extends current knowledge by following a unique sample of black youth, who are transitioning to adulthood in inner cities with huge trauma and other stressors,” said Dr. Shervin Assari of the U-M Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health, and the Department of Psychiatry.
“That is, of course, a difficult and challenging transition as the environment is not friendly to many of them, and opportunities are systematically blocked for many of them. Low safety, low job opportunities and high poverty are some elements of that life.”
Specifically, chronic stress throws off the balance of hormones secreted in what is called the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When stressed, the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus triggers the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which then stimulates secretion of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) by the pituitary gland. ACTH secretion then results in the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands.
The cortisol response to fear or stress often is referred to as the fight-or-flight mechanism. The hormone is supposed to be spent by our bodies as we respond to the trigger. One way to use up the cortisol is an aerobic workout at the gym, for example.