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Allostasis model facilitates understanding race differences in the diurnal cortisol rhythm

  • Martie L. Skinner (a1), Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff (a2), Kevin P. Haggerty (a1), Christopher L. Coe (a3) and Richard F. Catalano (a1)...

The concept of allostasis suggests that greater cumulative stress burden can influence stress-responsive physiology. Dysregulation of allostatic mediators, including the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, is thought to precede many other signs of age-related pathology as the persistent burden of stressors accumulates over the individual's life span. We predicted that even in young adulthood, HPA regulation would differ between Blacks and Whites, reflecting, in part, higher rates of stressor exposure and greater potential for stressors to “get under the skin.” We examined whether stressor exposure, including experiences with racism and discrimination, explained race differences in waking cortisol and the diurnal rhythm. We also examined whether HPA functioning was associated with mental health outcomes previously linked to cortisol. Salivary cortisol was assayed in 275 young adults (127 Blacks, 148 Whites, 19 to 22 years old), four times a day across 3 days. Hierarchical linear models revealed flatter slopes for Blacks, reflecting significantly lower waking and higher bedtime cortisol levels compared to Whites. Associations of HPA functioning with stressors were typically more robust for Whites such that more stress exposure created an HPA profile that resembled that of Black young adults. For Blacks, greater stressor exposure did not further impact HPA functioning, or, when significant, was often associated with higher cortisol levels. Across both races, flatter slopes generally indicated greater HPA dysregulation and were associated with poor mental health outcomes. These differential effects were more robust for Whites. These findings support an allostatic model in which social contextual factors influence normal biorhythms, even as early as young adulthood.

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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Martie L. Skinner, Social Development Research Group, University of Washington, 9725 3rd Avenue NE, Suite 401, Seattle, WA 98115; E-mail:
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Development and Psychopathology
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