A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology has found that racial discrimination from peers is most strongly associated with unhealthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol in teenagers. The study surveyed 100 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 who were overweight or had obesity. The participants reported their experiences with different types of discrimination, including institutional, peer, educational, and cumulative discrimination. Salivary cortisol levels were measured five times a day over three days.
The findings revealed that the teenagers who experienced racial discrimination from their peers had consistently elevated levels of cortisol throughout the day. Disruptions in cortisol patterns can lead to unhealthy levels in the body, which are connected to several chronic health conditions such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
While peer discrimination was not the most frequently experienced type of discrimination, it had the greatest impact. Rebecca Hasson, the lead researcher, explained that this may be because peers are significant relationships in the lives of teenagers. The study further discovered that racial discrimination had harmful effects on both Black and white teenagers, although African American or Black children experienced it more frequently.
The researchers emphasized that racial discrimination is harmful to everyone and called for efforts to acknowledge and respect everyone’s humanity. They also highlighted the potential of physical activity as a means to combat the negative health effects of stress and racial discrimination. In line with this, Hasson’s lab has developed physical activity programs to provide children with activity breaks throughout the day.
The goal of these programs is not only to buffer the effects of discrimination but also to develop policy and programs that can eliminate discrimination altogether. The study underscores the need for comprehensive approaches that address the impact of racial discrimination on health and well-being, especially in adolescence.
Jonel E. Emlaw et al, Racial discrimination and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation in adolescents with overweight and obesity: does context matter?, Psychosomatic Medicine (2023). DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000001235