Stress, Trauma, Racial/Ethnic Group Membership, and HPA Function: Utility of Hair Cortisol

Jessica Palmer-Bacon, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, William D. Spaulding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Discrimination, poverty, and other aspects of the minority experience produce stress associated with health disparities. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a neuroendocrine subsystem usually monitored through assay of the hormone cortisol, is thought to play a key role in this relationship. Cortisol assay using hair specimens is a technology that promises to address important methodological problems in large-scale studies of health, well-being, and racial/ethnic status. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the potential of a hair cortisol assay-based method for studying trait-like HPA response to low to moderate levels of stress, associated with racial/ethnic discrimination and related social processes, among well-functioning young adults. The hair cortisol measure was shown to be highly reliable; it detected differences in gender and ethnic/racial identity and was correlated with a history of physical abuse and measures of experienced microaggression. The results support the promise of hair-based cortisol assay as a key methodology in health disparities research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-200
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Orthopsychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020


  • cortisol
  • discrimination
  • hair
  • health disparities
  • trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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