New research offers strong evidence that females – but not males – “may be at added risk for developing Fibromyalgia if, while in the womb, they were exposed to higher than normal levels of cortisol produced by their mothers in response to stress” involving life circumstances such as loss of a partner or low social support, trauma, or short gestational period. This exposure can interfere with development of the female fetus’s adrenal gland, permanently limiting its ability to produce adequate amounts of cortisol, according to a study led by Dirk Hellhammer, PhD, at the University of Trier, Germany. Cortisol is a hormone involved in helping the body respond to stress and in immune system regulation, among other functions. The study, which involved comparisons of 93 female patients diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and 100 healthy female control subjects, found that the patients with Fibromyalgia were “significantly” more likely than the others to report that their mothers had experienced severe life stresses while carrying them. Also, the patients born of stressed pregnancies were observed to have low cortisol levels, or “blunted” levels in response to a standardized measure of psychological stress. Other data from this laboratory suggest that elevated cortisol levels during gestation “result in a blunted cortisol response to psychological stress only in women, but not in men.” Dr. Hellhammer reported these findings as part of a briefing titled “Prenatal Programming: Womb with a View,” on June 22, 2006 at the 6th International Congress of Neuroendocrinology in Pittsburgh. An abstract of the study report “Sex Specific Prenatal Programming of Hypocortisolism in Fibromyalgia?” may be found at http://newsbureau.upmc.com/ICN2006/
Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by extreme fatigue and widespread muscle pain that is diagnosed more often in women than men. Future studies by this team will further assess the implications of their findings.