Early life stress exposure associated with reduced polyunsaturated-containing lipids in low-income children

Pediatr Res. 2020 Jun 3. doi: 10.1038/s41390-020-0989-0. Online ahead of print.


Background: Psychosocial stress in early childhood is associated with adult obesity and cardiometabolic disease. The association of psychosocial stress with the metabolome in childhood is unknown.

Method: Low-income children (n = 28, mean age 1.8 years), recruited from the community, participated. Psychosocial stress was measured by diurnal salivary cortisol (cortisol intercept and slope) and by mother-reported chaos in the home using the Confusion, Hubbub, and Order Scale (CHAOS). At mean age 6.1 years, anthropometry was collected and fasting metabolites measured using an untargeted metabolomics and shotgun lipidomics platform.

Results: Cortisol slope was inversely associated with fatty acid (FA) 20:3, FA 20:4 and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) metabolites. A higher CHAOS score was associated with lower very long-chain PUFA metabolites and a trend towards lower long-chain PUFA containing triglycerides.

Conclusions: Psychosocial stress in early childhood, measured with both biological markers and parent report, was associated with lower PUFAs later in childhood. Future work should examine potential mechanisms of association, including dietary intake or direct effects on polyunsaturated fatty acid levels or metabolism.

Impact: In this longitudinal study, the key message is that diurnal cortisol patterns and greater parent-reported psychosocial stress exposure in early childhood are associated with lower plasma polyunsaturated fatty acid containing lipids 5 years later, potentially indicating altered dietary intake or metabolism associated with psychosocial stress. Untargeted metabolomics and lipidomics can be used to assess changes in metabolism response to psychosocial stress. Stress exposure in early childhood may be associated with the future metabolome. Future work should examine potential pathways of association, including dietary intake and direct effects on metabolism.