Maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with negative maternal/child outcomes. One potential biomarker of the maternal stress response is cortisol, a product of activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This study evaluated cortisol levels in hair throughout pregnancy as a marker of total cortisol release. Cortisol levels in hair have been shown to be easily quantifiable and may be representative of total cortisol release more than single saliva or serum measures. Hair cortisol provides a simple way to monitor total cortisol release over an extended period of time. Hair cortisol levels were determined from each trimester (15, 26 and 36 weeks gestation) and 3 months postpartum. Hair cortisol levels were compared to diurnal salivary cortisol collected over 3 days (3 times/day) at 14, 18, 23, 29, and 34 weeks gestational age and 6 weeks postpartum from 21 pregnant women. Both salivary and hair cortisol levels rose during pregnancy as expected. Hair cortisol and diurnal salivary cortisol area under the curve with respect to ground (AUCg) were also correlated throughout pregnancy. Levels of cortisol in hair are a valid and useful tool to measure long-term cortisol activity. Hair cortisol avoids methodological problems associated with collection other cortisol measures such as plasma, urine, or saliva and is a reliable metric of HPA activity throughout pregnancy reflecting total cortisol release over an extended period.
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