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By Lauren Baggett

Evidence linking stress and disease has been growing in recent years, and notably psychological stress during pregnancy has been associated with pregnancy loss, preterm birth and low birth weight. Yet, scientists still don’t understand what drives these associations.

A new study from the University of Georgia found an association between the occurrence of stressful life events and elevated levels of oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has been indicated as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and more recently research has shown an association between oxidative stress and preterm births.

“Women who deliver preterm have higher oxidative stress levels relative to women who deliver at term,” said lead author Stephanie Eick, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“There’s also a growing body a literature that shows that non-pregnant women who experience depression, anxiety, extreme stressful life events have increased oxidative stress levels. We hypothesized that stress could be one mediating pathway, that psychosocial stress could influence preterm births through oxidative stress.”

The study included over 700 pregnant women recruited from university-based prenatal care clinics. The women received a questionnaire designed to capture their psychosocial status during pregnancy and any experience with stressful life events, such as a sudden job loss or death of a family member.

The researchers also took urine samples and analyzed the women’s levels of 8-iso-prostaglandin-F2α, a common biomarker of oxidative stress.

The findings revealed that stress from depression and anxiety or a family death was most strongly associated to elevated levels of oxidative stress.

Eick says the study emphasizes the need to assess for stress during routine prenatal care.

“Having a better understanding of a woman’s overall well-being is very important, and we should consider mental health throughout all aspects of pregnancy,” she said. “If we’re able to address mental health in early pregnancy, we can help more women deliver later and deliver healthier babies.”

The study, “Association between prenatal psychological stress and oxidative stress during pregnancy,” was published in Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. Access the study online here.