Stress During Pregnancy Can Affect Fetal Development

Stress During PregnancyReducing stress during pregnancy often proves difficult for many women. Unfortunately, a new study published the Journal of Physiology concludes that stress hormones in a mother can affect the fetal development of her baby.

Glucocorticoids (GCs) are a class of steroid hormones that play a role in the structure, synthesis, and metabolism of glucose in adults and fetuses. GCs are part of the feedback mechanism in the immune system that turns immune activity down. Corticosterone is a natural glucocorticoid that plays a role in the regulation of energy, immune reactions, and stress responses.

For the present study, researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom investigated the effects of maternal stress hormones on a developing baby using a rodent model.

To test the effects of high stress levels in pregnant mice on their offspring, the researchers administered corticosterone to the mouse mothers at different times during pregnancy. Twenty female mice received the GC from days 11 to 16 while thirty-one received the GC from days 14 to 19. Seventy-four control female mice did not receive any corticosterone.

According to the study, increased levels of the stress hormone corticosterone caused the pregnant mice to eat more but reduced the ability of the placenta to transport glucose to the fetus. Reduce glucose transport causes fewer nutrients to reach the developing baby, resulting in a decrease in fetal weight.

Explains lead author Dr. Owen Vaughan:

“Together with previous work, the findings show that maternal glucocorticoids regulate fetal nutrition. Higher glucocorticoid hormone levels in the mother (as seen in stressful conditions), can reduce glucose transport across the placenta and lead to a decrease in fetal weight.

“Glucocorticoid levels in pregnant women may determine the specific combination of nutrients received by the fetus and influence the long-term metabolic health of their children as a result. This could have implications for women stressed during pregnancy or treated clinically with glucocorticoids, if the mechanisms are similar in humans.

“Our research showed that under stress, certain genes in the placenta were modified. One of the genes shown to be altered in the placenta by maternal stress hormones was Redd1. This gene is believed to signal availability of other substances, like oxygen, and to interact with intracellular pathways regulating growth and nutrient uptake in other tissues of the body. Future studies may prove this molecule is important in the placenta, in linking environmental cues to the nutrition of the fetus.”

The findings of the study indicate that maternal stress during pregnancy can negatively affect the development of a baby, which can in turn influence the long-term metabolic health of a child.

Another recent study concluded that children born to mothers who experienced domestic abuse during pregnancy are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms within the first year of life.


Corticosterone alters materno-fetal glucose partitioning and insulin signalling in pregnant mice:
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Stress during pregnancy can affect fetal development:

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