How A Stressful Childhood Can Impact Your Hormone Levels In The Long Run
Life can be stressful. Vying for that raise at work, caring for a sick loved one, or disagreeing with your partner on a Big Life Decision, can throw your stress and anxiety levels into a tailspin. Sometimes, however, you can't quell the stress, no matter what you do, but as it turns out, our stress in childhood may have something to do with our stress now.
A new study1 published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who had more stressful childhoods and reported high stress in their adult lives have a cortisol pattern that could lead to adverse health outcomes.
The feeling of stress comes from a release of the steroid hormone cortisol. Typically our cortisol levels peak in the mornings and then decrease throughout the day (they're at their lowest before we get into bed). In this study, researchers found that people who had both high stress earlier on in life and report this high stress as an adult, particularly at age 37, had a flatter cortisol pattern, meaning it's not going through the healthy fluctuations it's supposed to.
"What we find is that the amount of a person's exposure to early life stress plays an important role in the development of unhealthy patterns of cortisol release. However, this is only true if individuals also are experiencing higher levels of current stress, indicating that the combination of higher early life stress and higher current life stress leads to the most unhealthy cortisol profiles," says psychological scientist Ethan Young, a researcher at the University of Minnesota in a statement.
The good news is that just because someone experienced stressful childhood events, such as trauma, does not necessarily mean they will show this cortisol pattern now. Instead it's a combination of the two—stress as a kid and stress now—that could lead to poor health outcomes. Chronic stress has been connected to issues like hormonal imbalances, sleep problems, and an unhealthy immune system.
Before we jump to analyzing our childhood stress and assessing our current stress level, it's important to remember that there's a lot you can do to lower your cortisol levels if you do feel like you are stressed more often than not. Not getting enough sleep, for example, and eating foods high in sugar can spike your cortisol levels. If you're looking to combat stress in the moment, consider meditating (this practice is specifically for helping manage stress) or going for a walk, both linked with lowering cortisol levels.
While we can't go back in time and eliminate stressful childhood experiences, we can make lifestyle changes now to decrease cortisol levels, and that could make all the difference!
Caroline Muggia has a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College. She received her E-RYT with Yoga Works and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. A writer and environmental advocate, she is passionate about helping people live healthier and more sustainable lives. You can usually find her drinking matcha or spending time by the ocean.