Discrimination role in health disparities is significant among African American males. Emma Adam, a developmental psychologist, at Northwestern, discovered that adolescent males experience different levels of cortisol. White males experienced the expected cortisol curve (high in the morning and low before bedtime) while African and Hispanic American males had flatter cortisol levels throughout the day.
Adam’s research proved that chronic racial discrimination affects cortisol levels in African American males. Adolescents who felt discriminated against by teachers and/or society had flat cortisol levels.
Cortisol regulates metabolism, blood sugar, and sex hormones. It affects neurotransmitters that determine energy, mood, mental clarity, focus and sleep. Cortisol also affects blood pressure and even our skin and hair.
Cortisol is known as the body’s stress hormone; its biggest role is in the regulation of stress response. Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, like reproduction and the immune system, to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress.
When we feel stressed, our blood pressure goes up. If we are under constant stress, our blood pressure rises, decreasing blood flow to vital organs causing sodium and water retention.
Cortisol affects sleep by regulating how tired or awake we are. Levels of cortisol are usually higher in the morning, helping us wake and lowers throughout the day allowing us to fall asleep at night. High levels of cortisol throughout the day can cause insomnia. Chronically high levels cause digestive problems, hormonal imbalances, mood changes and autoimmune issues.
The Universities of Colorado and Michigan began studying in 1991, why some kids go on to succeed in life and others do not. Their project lasted 20 years, 60% of the kids in the study were African American. The researchers asked several different types of questions like “at school do you feel like teachers call on you less because of your race?”
Not only does a lifetime of discrimination affect our cortisol secretion curve, but it also matters more when the discrimination begin. Kids who feel discriminated against are affected more than adults.
Discrimination Health Disparities
The flatter daily cortisol curve found in African and Hispanic American adolescent males are linked to adverse health consequences. These groups have a higher risk of asthma, obesity, low birth weight, diabetes and heart disease. They also experience higher mortality rates and lower life expectancies. Although, there are several possibilities which may explain these disparities. Researchers have begun to take seriously that discriminatory stress and social environmental stressors play a significant role in health disparities.
Researchers believe early exposure to discrimination, independent of current experiences cause the greatest problems. Beyond the physical health effects, we must consider whether cortisol differences are implicated in other disparities like emotional health, behavioral and achievement gaps. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education has made closing the achievement gap their highest priority.
Researchers believe that mothers pass their hormonal makeup to their offspring. Specifically, women who report ethnic discrimination gave birth to babies with lower birth weight and the baby’s cortisol levels were higher than normal six weeks after birth. These women experienced poorer birth outcomes and shorter gestation periods. Prior studies demonstrated that hormones can transfer from mother to infant through the mother’s breast milk. Low birth weight is linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and mental health disorders into adulthood.
The research shows that discrimination impacts risk of developing a chronic disease in the current generation and future generations.
Lester, C. (2016). How discrimination affects your hormone level. Innovation Hub. Web. Feb. 2016. http://blogs.wgbh.org/innovation-hub/2016/1/14/how-discrimination-affects-your-hormone-levels/
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DeSantis, A., Adam, E., Doane, L., Mineka, S., Zinbarg, R., & Craske, M. (2007). Racial/ethnic differences in cortisol diurnal rhythms in a community sample of adolescents. Journal Of Adolescent Health, 41(1), 3-13 11p.
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Adam, E., Heissel, J., Zeiders, K., Richeson, J., Ross, E., Ehrlich, K., & … Eccles, J. (n.d). Developmental histories of perceived racial discrimination and diurnal cortisol profiles in adulthood: A 20-year prospective study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 62279-291.