Cortisol overproduction linked to youth anxiety

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 5:27pm

The harmful effects of anxiety experienced during adolescence may carry into young adulthood.

That’s according to a recent study from University researchers that followed 176 Black youth from Flint, Mich. over seven years — from 1994 to 2001 — and showed anxiety from the their adolescent years affected their stress hormone levels in young adulthood. Previous studies have shown similar trends, but not specifically in Black populations.

The researchers looked at levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the body during times of stress, that raises the level of sugar in the bloodstream. The brain can then use the extra sugar as energy for helping think through the stressful situation.

Cortisol helps in dealing with acute, short-term stress. However, anxiety causes prolonged production of cortisol, which is detrimental for the body. Chronic cortisol production is associated with numerous diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.

The study, published earlier this month in International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, is not the first to look at how anxiety in adolescence affects cortisol levels in adulthood, but it is the first to do so in Black youths. Most previous studies looked at middle-class white populations.  

Shervin Assari, a Psychiatry research faculty member and head of the research team, said he looked specifically at young Black individuals from Flint because of the problems many face due to low-income backgrounds and racism.

“For Black youths, some life challenges include living in an unsafe environment, discrimination at interpersonal level and racism in a structural level,” Assari wrote in an e-mail to The Michigan Daily.

Assari defined “structural racism” as societal barriers for a population’s access to resources, such as education and employment opportunities.

The study analyzed male and female participants separately, as gender is known to shape what kind of stress people experience.

“Men and women have very different life experiences and exposures that make them differently vulnerable or resilient to the effect of risk and protective factors,” Assari wrote.

The team saw an overproduction of cortisol in females if they had anxiety symptoms in their adolescent years, but not necessarily in males. In males, the overproduction was instead associated with alcohol use in adolescent years.

Psychology Prof. Marc Zimmerman said one of the caveats for this study was that the team looked at young adulthood — or early 20s — which may not be able to be considered complete adulthood because the brain is still developing.

“It can be argued that is not yet complete adulthood,” he said. “Some researchers suggest that the brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25.”

Still, Zimmerman said the study still has important implications.

“(The stresses) create problems in terms of our physical and mental health,” he said. “They are persistent. They are not just ephemeral. Our job as adults is to create safe and healthy environments as much as we can … to help our society as a whole.”