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Effects of suckling on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to psychosocial stress in postpartum lactating women


Heinrichs, Markus; Meinlschmidt, Gunther; Neumann, Inga; Wagner, Sabine; Kirschbaum, Clemens; Ehlert, Ulrike; Hellhammer, Dirk H (2001). Effects of suckling on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to psychosocial stress in postpartum lactating women. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 86(10):4798-4804.

Abstract

In several studies lactation has been shown to be associated with a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyporesponsiveness to physical and psychological stressors. As it is not known whether the marked blunting of endocrine stress reactivity in women can be ascribed to suckling as a short-term effect or to lactation in general, the acute effects of suckling on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system responses to mental stress were investigated in lactating women. Forty-three lactating women were randomly assigned either to breast-feed or to hold their infants for a 15-min period with the onset 30 min before they were exposed to a brief psychosocial stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Both breastfeeding and holding the infant yielded significant decreases in ACTH, total plasma cortisol, and salivary free cortisol (all P < 0.01). There were no significant differences in baseline hormone levels between the groups 1 min before the stress test. In response to stress exposure, ACTH, total plasma contisol, salivary free cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine were significantly increased in all lactating women (all P < 0.001). However, total cortisol. and free cortisol. responses to stress were attenuated in breast-feeding women (P = 0.001 and P = 0.067, respectively), who also showed significantly decreasing PRL levels during the stress test (P = 0.005). In addition, there was no change in plasma oxytocin or vasopressin in response to the stressor. Breast-feeding as well as holding led to decreased anxiety (P < 0.05), whereas, in contrast, stress exposure worsened mood, calmness, and anxiety in the total group (all P < 0.001). From these data we conclude that lactation in women, in contrast to that in rats, does not result in a general restraint of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to a psychosocial stressor. Rather, suckling is suggested to exert a short-term suppression of the cortisol response to mental stress.

Abstract

In several studies lactation has been shown to be associated with a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyporesponsiveness to physical and psychological stressors. As it is not known whether the marked blunting of endocrine stress reactivity in women can be ascribed to suckling as a short-term effect or to lactation in general, the acute effects of suckling on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system responses to mental stress were investigated in lactating women. Forty-three lactating women were randomly assigned either to breast-feed or to hold their infants for a 15-min period with the onset 30 min before they were exposed to a brief psychosocial stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Both breastfeeding and holding the infant yielded significant decreases in ACTH, total plasma cortisol, and salivary free cortisol (all P < 0.01). There were no significant differences in baseline hormone levels between the groups 1 min before the stress test. In response to stress exposure, ACTH, total plasma contisol, salivary free cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine were significantly increased in all lactating women (all P < 0.001). However, total cortisol. and free cortisol. responses to stress were attenuated in breast-feeding women (P = 0.001 and P = 0.067, respectively), who also showed significantly decreasing PRL levels during the stress test (P = 0.005). In addition, there was no change in plasma oxytocin or vasopressin in response to the stressor. Breast-feeding as well as holding led to decreased anxiety (P < 0.05), whereas, in contrast, stress exposure worsened mood, calmness, and anxiety in the total group (all P < 0.001). From these data we conclude that lactation in women, in contrast to that in rats, does not result in a general restraint of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to a psychosocial stressor. Rather, suckling is suggested to exert a short-term suppression of the cortisol response to mental stress.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Psychology
Dewey Decimal Classification:150 Psychology
Language:English
Date:2001
Deposited On:12 Oct 2012 13:27
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 15:59
Publisher:Endocrine Society
ISSN:0021-972X
Additional Information:
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.86.10.4798

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