Probing links between trauma and reproductive health harms

May 26, 2023 – Early life trauma is an important and overlooked cause of adverse reproductive health outcomes in women such as endometriosis, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and infertility, according to a recent investigation from researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The paper, published May 12 in Human Reproduction, was co-authored by Carmen Messerlian, assistant professor of environmental reproductive, perinatal, and pediatric epidemiology, and her team.

The experts reviewed numerous studies that have looked at possible links between trauma and reproductive health impacts, including how trauma-related stress leads to hormonal and nervous system changes. The researchers also noted connections between early life trauma, menopausal issues, and cognitive decline in later life. And they suggested that a cyclical interaction between mental and reproductive health can compound the effects of trauma throughout a woman’s life.

Types of trauma that could influence reproductive health include sexual assault, physical abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, childhood maltreatment, or racial stressors, the authors said.

“Cumulatively, much of the current literature suggests that the link between reproductive and emotional health instigated by trauma may have severe consequences for a woman’s wellbeing throughout every life stage,” the authors wrote.

They devised a conceptual and mechanistic framework for how traumatic experiences might lead to adverse reproductive health outcomes, noting that such a framework “helps uncover the reproductive, neurobiological, psychological and social pathways involved” in the link between trauma and reproductive health, and can help guide future research.

Co-authors of the study connected with Harvard Chan School included Alexandra Hillcoat, Jaya Prakash, Leah Martin, Yu Zhang, Gabriela Rosa, Henning Tiemeier, and Charleen Adams.

Read the study: Trauma and female reproductive health across the lifecourse: motivating a research agenda for the future of women’s health

Learn more

How mental health can impact reproductive health (Harvard Chan School news)

How our environment impacts reproductive health (Harvard Chan School feature)