A new study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who had more stressful childhoods and reported high stress in their adult lives have a cortisol pattern that could lead to adverse health outcomes.
The feeling of stress comes from a release of the steroid hormone cortisol. Typically our cortisol levels peak in the mornings and then decrease throughout the day (they’re at their lowest before we get into bed). In this study, researchers found that people who had both high stress earlier on in life and report this high stress as an adult, particularly at age 37, had a flatter cortisol pattern, meaning it’s not going through the healthy fluctuations it’s supposed to.
“What we find is that the amount of a person’s exposure to early life stress plays an important role in the development of unhealthy patterns of cortisol release. However, this is only true if individuals also are experiencing higher levels of current stress, indicating that the combination of higher early life stress and higher current life stress leads to the most unhealthy cortisol profiles,” says psychological scientist Ethan Young, a researcher at the University of Minnesota in a statement.
The good news is that just because someone experienced stressful childhood events, such as trauma, does not necessarily mean they will show this cortisol pattern now. Instead it’s a combination of the two—stress as a kid and stress now—that could lead to poor health outcomes. Chronic stress has been connected to issues like hormonal imbalances, sleep problems, and an unhealthy immune system.