Gestational and Postnatal Cortisol Profiles of Women With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Dissociative Subtype

Julia S. Seng, Yang Li, James J. Yang, Anthony P. King, Lisa M.Kane Low, Mickey Sperlich, Heather Rowe, Hyunhwa Lee, Maria Muzik, Julian D. Ford, Israel Liberzon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Objective To test the hypothesis that women with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have greater salivary cortisol levels across the diurnal curve and throughout gestation, birth, and the postpartum period than women who do not have PTSD. Design Prospective, longitudinal, biobehavioral cohort study. Setting Prenatal clinics at academic health centers in the Midwest region of the United States. Participants Women expecting their first infants who fit with one of four cohorts: a nonexposed control group, a trauma-exposed control group, a group with PTSD, and a group with the dissociative subtype of PTSD. Methods In the first half of pregnancy, 395 women provided three salivary cortisol specimens on a single day for diurnal data. A subsample of 111 women provided three salivary cortisol specimens per day, 12 times, from early pregnancy to 6 weeks postpartum for longitudinal data. Trauma history, PTSD, and dissociative symptoms were measured via standardized telephone diagnostic interviews with the use of validated epidemiologic measures. Generalized estimating equations were used to determine group differences. Results Generalized estimating equations showed that women with the dissociative subtype of PTSD had the highest and flattest gestational cortisol level curves. The difference was greatest in early pregnancy, when participants in the dissociative subtype group had cortisol levels 8 times greater in the afternoon and 10 times greater at bedtime than those in the nonexposed control group. Conclusion Women with the dissociative subtype of PTSD, a complex form associated with a history of childhood maltreatment, may have toxic levels of cortisol that contribute to intergenerational patterns of adverse health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12-22
Number of pages11
JournalJOGNN - Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • adverse childhood events
  • cortisol
  • developmental origins of health and disease
  • dissociation
  • dissociative subtype
  • gestation
  • posttraumatic stress disorder
  • toxic stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics
  • Critical Care
  • Maternity and Midwifery


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