We’ve long known that suffering physical or sexual abuse in childhood negatively affects mental health for life. But recently, researchers have uncovered a link between more common forms of childhood adversity and chronic physical conditions later in life.
In other words, scientists are breaking down, on a biochemical level, how stressors we face when we’re young catch up with us when we’re adults — predisposing us to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, migraines, and asthma.
As a science journalist who has spent the last ten years exploring the intersection between neuroscience, immunology, and the deepest inner workings of the human heart, I decided to delve into the research in my new book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal.
The work builds upon a large-scale epidemiological study launched in 1998 that probed into the child histories of 17,000 patients, and compared their early experiences to later health records.
The results were shocking: nearly two-thirds of subjects had suffered one or more categories of chronic, unpredictable and stressful Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. These categories included:
- Being repeatedly put down, insulted or humiliated by a parent
- Feeling unloved or unsupported by family members
- Facing physical or sexual abuse
- Experiencing emotional or physical neglect
- Losing a parent through abandonment, divorce or death
- Growing up with an alcoholic or addicted family member
- Having a parent who suffered from depression or mental illness
It turned out that the number of ACE categories an individual had faced could predict the amount of medical care she’d require in adulthood. For each adversity a woman had faced, her risk of having an autoimmune disease in adulthood rose by 20%. And individuals who’d encountered four or more ACEs were twice as likely as others to be diagnosed with cancer.
Here’s why: The chronic, unpredictable stress of ACEs can alter a child's developing immune system when they’re at their most vulnerable. And when children are caught in a state of fight or flight, brain and body marinate in inflammatory chemicals. These, in turn, reset their stress response to “high” for life, so that they may become more reactive to stressors as adults. And this continued inflammatory stress response promotes physical illness.
These scientific findings can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re among the 40% of Americans who’ve faced two or more ACEs.
But the same science that tells us that childhood trauma changes our physiology also tells us that our body can recover. Just as physical wounds and bruises heal, there are scientifically-supported steps to remove the fingerprints that early-life trauma leaves on one’s neurobiology:
1. Take the ACE questionnaire.
Begin by completing this ten-question survey about your childhood experiences, and then bring your results to your doctor. You'll acknowledge the link between your past and present, and this “aha” moment can prompt the start of your healing journey.
2. Incorporate meditation into your routine.
There are plenty of medications you can take to dampen down your sympathetic nervous system (which triggers fight-or-flight mode), but there's no drug to help boost the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm you down after a stressor has passed so that you can relax again.
But there is mindfulness-meditation. Research shows that individuals who practice mindfulness-meditation have an increase in gray matter in the brain and even demonstrate changes in genes that control the stress response.
3. Practice yoga.
Here's another reason to work on your sun salutation: Yoga can help to release decades worth of physical tension stored in the body. In one study, participants who did yoga training for 12 weeks experienced decreased blood flow to the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, and increased blood flow to the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, which helps us to respond more appropriately to stressors.
Studies also show that yoga can raise levels of GABA, a chemical that helps to protect us against depression and anxiety.
4. Manage your gut health with probiotics.
New research shows that your gut microbiome can influence your mood state. A sophisticated neural network transmits messages between your brain and the trillions of bacteria involved in digestion, creating a powerful feedback loop.
And studies suggest that good gut microbiota, such as those found in probiotics, may have a direct effect on neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, such as GABA. In other words: maybe there’s some truth to "you are what you eat."
5. Nurture your relationships.
When we surround ourselves with people who support us, we give our bodies and brains a better shot at healing. Positive social interactions up production of oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone that dials down the stress response. In fact, research shows that having strong social ties betters outcomes for women with breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic conditions.
6. Write to heal.
The exercise of writing down your secrets, even if you destroy what you’ve written afterward, has been shown to have positive health effects. In one study, individuals who wrote about their emotional upheavals (for just twenty minutes a day for four days) experienced a boost in their immune function and required fewer visits to the doctor.
7. Consult a licensed therapist.
Sometimes, you might need a little help in unpacking the past. When a therapist sees you for who you are and accepts you unconditionally, you form a safe attachment and learn to untether yourself from your most painful memories.
Plus, research shows therapy can heal the cellular damage done by chronic, unpredictable stress. In one study, patients who’d undergone therapy showed changes in the genes that regulate the body’s stress response — even a year after their last session.
It’s never too late to embark on a journey of self-awakening and transformation, and emerge gracefully from a tumultuous past.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa is an award-winning science journalist, public speaker, and author of The Last Best Cure, in which she chronicled her yearlong journey to health. Childhood Disrupted was born through the author's own search to better understand the role her own childhood adversity played in the chronic health issues she faced as an adult. She also wrote The Autoimmune Epidemic, an investigation into reasons behind today’s rising rate of autoimmune diseases.
Ms. Nakazawa lectures nationwide and has appeared on The TODAY Show, National Public Radio, and ABC News. Her work has been featured on the cover of Parade, in Time Magazine, USA Today Weekend, Parenting, and Psychology Today. She has been a regular contributor to More and her research has been covered by The Washington Post, Glamour, Ladies Home Journal, and AARP: the Magazine. Donna blogs regularly for Psychology Today.
You can find out more about her at DonnaJacksonNakazawa.com