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Jan 08, 2015 11:32 AM EST

Racial Discrimination Can Impact Physical Health

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Ethnic discrimination may adversely affect the health of the person experiencing it, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver found that women who experience racial discrimination while pregnant suffer significant health impacts that are passed on to their infants.

"Many people think that ethnic discrimination only has psychological impacts," Zaneta Thayer, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "But in fact, ethnic discrimination can impact physical health as well, possibly through changes in stress physiology functioning."

For the study, researchers examined 64 pregnant women of various ethnic backgrounds. They filled out questionnaires asking whether they had been harassed, verbally or physically attacked, insulted, ignored or condescended to based on their ethnicity.

Researchers then collected saliva samples from the women in the morning and the evening to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone which, if overproduced, can lead to a host of chronic ailments including cardiovascular disease and mental illness. Infant saliva was also analyzed along with birth outcome information such as weight, length, head circumference and length of gestation.

One third of the participants reported being discriminated against which was associated with higher levels of evening cortisol.

"To our knowledge this is the first study to report an association between maternal ethnic discrimination and maternal stress physiology in pregnancy or with stress in infancy," Thayer said.

The results indicate that discrimination may produce far reaching physiological changes.

"The finding that offspring of women who experienced ethnic discrimination had greater cortisol reactivity in early infancy adds to the growing evidence that a woman's emotional, physical and mental well-being, during or around the time of pregnancy can influence the biology of her child," Thayer said.

The findings are detailed in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

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