Perceived discrimination and diurnal cortisol: examining relations among Mexican American adolescents

Horm Behav. 2012 Apr;61(4):541-8. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.01.018. Epub 2012 Feb 8.


Perceived discrimination remains a salient and significant environmental stressor for ethnic and racial minority youth. Although many studies have examined the impact of racial/ethnic discrimination on mental health symptomatology and physical health, little is known of the potential physiological processes underlying such experiences, especially during adolescence. In an attempt to understand how varying perceptions of discrimination relate to functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), the current study examined the relation between Mexican American adolescents' (N = 100, M(age) = 15.3 years old) perceptions of discrimination and aspects of their diurnal cortisol profiles. Three salivary samples (wakeup, +30 waking, bedtime) were collected across 3 days (total of 9 samples). Utilizing multi-level modeling, results revealed that adolescents' perceived discrimination related to greater overall cortisol output (area under the curve; AUC) after controlling for other life stressors, depressive symptoms, family income, acculturation level, daily stress levels and daily behaviors. Findings also revealed that perceived discrimination was marginally related to a steeper cortisol awakening response (CAR). Together, these findings suggest that perceived discrimination is a salient and impactful stressor for Mexican American adolescents. Understanding the physiological correlates of discrimination can provide insight into larger health disparities among ethnic and racial minority individuals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acculturation
  • Adolescent
  • Algorithms
  • Area Under Curve
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Income
  • Male
  • Mexican Americans
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Prejudice*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology


  • Hydrocortisone