Ethnic discrimination predicts poor self-rated health and cortisol in pregnancy: insights from New Zealand

Soc Sci Med. 2015 Mar:128:36-42. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.01.003. Epub 2015 Jan 6.


Despite growing research emphasis on understanding the health effects of ethnic discrimination, little work has focused on how such exposures may influence a woman's biology and health during pregnancy. Understanding such effects is important given evidence that maternal stress experience in pregnancy can have long term effects on offspring health. Here we present data evaluating the relationship between perceived discrimination, self-rated health, and the stress hormone cortisol measured in late pregnancy among a diverse sample of women living in Auckland, New Zealand (N = 55). We also evaluated possible intergenerational impacts of maternal discrimination on stress reactivity in a subset of offspring (N = 19). Pregnant women were recruited from two antenatal care clinics in Auckland. Women were met in their homes between 34 and 36 weeks gestation, during which time a prenatal stress questionnaire was administered and saliva samples (morning and evening from two days) were obtained. Offspring cortisol reactivity was assessed at the standard six week postnatal vaccination visit. We found that 34% of women reported having experienced ethnic discrimination, with minority and immigrant women being more likely to report being angry or upset in response to discrimination experience compared with NZ-born women of European descent. Women reporting discrimination experience had worse self-rated health, higher evening cortisol and gave birth to infants with higher cortisol reactivity, all independent of ethnicity and material deprivation. These findings suggest that discrimination experience can have biological impacts in pregnancy and across generations, potentially contributing to the ethnic gradient in health.

Keywords: DOHaD; Health disparities; Intergenerational effects; Racism; Social gradient in health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • New Zealand
  • Pregnancy
  • Prejudice / ethnology*
  • Racial Groups*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Self Disclosure


  • Hydrocortisone