OBJECTIVE: Little is known about the effect of social support on the reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis during pregnancy. Moreover, when investigating the HPA axis most studies do not consider the activity of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11β-HSD2), an enzyme within the salivary glands that inactivates cortisol to cortisone. This study explores the association between perceived emotional support and the maternal psychobiological stress response to a standardized naturalistic stressor by assessing maternal mood and the reactivity of salivary cortisol (SalF), salivary cortisone (SalE), and the SalE/(E+F) ratio as a marker of 11β-HSD2 activity.
METHODS: Repeated saliva samples and measures of maternal mood were obtained from 34 healthy second trimester pregnant women undergoing amniocentesis which served as a psychological stressor. The pregnant women additionally responded to a questionnaire of perceived emotional support and provided sociodemographic (e.g., maternal educational degree) and pregnancy-specific data (e.g., planned versus unplanned pregnancy).
RESULTS: Perceived emotional support neither showed a significant effect on mood nor on the SalF or SalE response to stress. However, a moderately strong positive association was found between perceived emotional support and SalE/(E+F) (r=.49). Additionally, the final regression analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between educational degree, planned/unplanned pregnancy and SalE/(E+F).
CONCLUSION: Findings suggest a higher metabolization of cortisol to cortisone in pregnant women with higher emotional support. In contrast, higher maternal education and unplanned pregnancy appear to be associated with decreased salivary 11β-HSD2 activity. The current study emphasizes the importance of taking the activity of 11β-HSD2 into account when examining SalF.