How Childhood Stress "Gets Under the Skin" to Affect Mental and Physical Health
Chronic stress in early childhood, such as the stress of poverty, abuse, neglect, or neighborhood violence, has been associated with poorer physical and mental health throughout the lifespan. I aim to shed light on how childhood stress affects health even years after experiencing the stressor. My work incorporates measures of cognition, behavior, socioemotional functioning, and biology, including measures of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the immune system, epigenetics, and cardiovascular function. With a better understanding of the mechanisms by which stress “gets under the skin” to affect our brains and our bodies, we can intervene at critical points in development to short-circuit these pathways and improve health.
How Social Support Buffers Individuals from Negative Effects of Stress
Having stable, supportive relationships is associated with better mental and physical health across development. This association between social support and health could be due to the power of supportive relationship figures to buffer individuals from stress, by increasing resources needed to cope with stress and decreasing the body’s response to stress. By lowering the body’s response to stress, the harmful effects of repeated increases in cortisol (a stress hormone) and other stress mediators might be reduced.
The goal of my research on social buffering is to find out which relationship figures can serve as a buffer from stress at different ages so that we can use this information to improve public health. Since many individuals begin to develop mental health problems starting in adolescence, I particularly want to find out whether difficulties with social buffering contribute to mental illness in adolescents. By finding out who can buffer stress for certain individuals and under what conditions social buffering is most effective, we can create interventions to help individuals at risk for mental and physical problems.
How Early Nutrition and Stress Impact Development
While we often think about the ways that parents, schools, and other factors like stress affect development, we do not always consider how nutrition can impact brain development. One arm of my research investigates how childhood nutritional deficiencies such as iron deficiency, which is especially prevalent in developing countries, can affect our mental and physical health. I also investigate how chronic stress interacts with nutrition to affect development, as there is evidence that stress interferes with nutrient absorption and might worsen nutritional deficiencies. More recently, I have become interested in how childhood over-nutrition, such as overweight and obesity, and behaviors that lead to over-nutrition, such as obesogenic diet and sedentary behavior, are influenced by life stress and stress biology. In the future, I aim to integrate the study of stress and nutrition in at-risk populations to identify targets for interventions that improve developmental outcomes for children who have experienced early psychosocial stress and over- or undernutrition.