The High Correlation between Childhood Adversity and Adult Illness

Very few people seem to understand the lifelong effects of chronic childhood trauma. In different parts of my life, I’ve had many people tell me they did not believe me when I described my mother (it’s hard for many to fathom an unloving, non-nurturing parent). More recently, I had yoga teachers tell me that I was making my struggles out to be “worse” than those of others when simply relaying some things I was going though. These responses felt hurtful to me. Because I was not “seen” or listened to or supported as a child, and have felt largely invisible for most of my life, being understood is a very rare, and therefore extremely important feeling for me. Earlier this month, as I read the book, “Childhood Interrupted” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, , I finally felt understood. I wanted to shout out to the world some of the things she was reporting. At last,  a book was written that explained the reasons I am the way I am and why I feel the way I do. It also explains why I (and many others who have experienced similar childhoods) am so sick now. This book explains my life!
There is a VERY high correlation between chronic adversity in childhood and chronic illness in adults (heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety, autoimmune disorders). While many factors contribute to chronic disease , including genetics, environmental toxins, nutrition, infection, and viruses, those who suffer from childhood adversity are at an increased risk because their bodies have been pumping out stress hormones over the course of their lives with no regulation to shut them down. The constant release of stress hormones causes inflammation throughout the body, which eventually turns into disease. If the immune system were a barrel, those suffering from chronic toxic stress would reach adulthood with a barrel already half-full. When environmental toxins, poor processed nutrition, infections, viruses, and adult stresses are added in, the barrel spills over and disease develops. Even those with healthy habits and lifestyles become sick. It’s as  if we, who have experienced difficult childhoods, are a ticking time bomb. It is only a matter of years before disease will develop. Time does not heal all wounds. It actually conceals many of them.
Nakazawa interviews several adults who experienced chronic trauma in their youth, and who now suffer from chronic illness. Echoing my feelings, one said, “I never felt okay in the world.” Like her, I have always felt something separating me from most others.
When a child’s trauma stems from his or her caregiver, he or she never feels safe. Instead, the child learns to be on constant alert. His or her fight or flight system is never able to turn off. Because a child can not fight or flee from a parent, as his survival is also dependent on that person, he is left with no choice but to freeze instead. Shutting down becomes the only method of survival. Trauma remains stuck in the cells of the body, altering brain and immunological functioning for life. Chronic stress is much more toxic to the body than a one time, perhaps more violent event. Recurrent humiliation has been shown to have a slightly more detrimental impact than other forms of abuse, and is correlated with a higher likelihood of adult illness and depression. War veterans are not the only group of people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!

The developing brain of someone undergoing constant stress becomes inflamed due to the steady stream of neurochemicals being released, resetting the tone of the brain for the rest of their life. When microglial cells that scan the brain, checking to see if it is safe, go “off-kilter” due to chronic, unpredictable stress, they prune away neurons, killing necessary brain cells for regulating emotions and calming stress. The resulting loss of grey and white matter leads to depression, anxiety disorders, and other disease. When combined with the normal pruning of brain neurons in adolescence, due to a time of specialization in things a person is interested in and good at, a person who has suffered from early adversity is left with far fewer neurons overall. This pruning process explains why depression often first appears in those in high school or college. (I personally distinctly remember feeling like I had a “hole” in my brain during my senior year in high school!) These changes in the brain lower a person’s set point of well-being. They experience far fewer positive moods, feel constant anxiety, and aren’t able to live life fully. Other changes in the brain structure include changes in the receptors of the hippocampus which help modulate stress hormone production, a shrinking of the size of the hippocampus and cerebral grey matter, and an impaired regulatory capacity of the brain’s fear circuitry (the frontal lobe, amygdala, and hippocampus).

Approximately fifteen percent of the population also has a variant of the gene called 5-HTTLPR, which causes them to be highly sensitive. This gene regulates serotonin: a neurotransmitter that aids in the body’s ability to rebound from trauma and distress. Those with the short/short version of this gene tend to be more highly sensitive to their daily environment than others. They recover less quickly, but also respond more deeply to positive nurturing. They feel pain more deeply than most, but are also more intuitive and receptive. (I definitely have this variant!). Unless they find an adult to offer them support and guidance, people with this variant who suffer from childhood adversity “face the greatest likelihood of suffering from depression in adulthood…. They get a double dose of inflammatory drip from early on, and for a very long time.” Differences in the way siblings respond to the same environment can be explained by having different variations of this gene, as well as having had different experiences within the same family.
The most critical period in a person’s development is the time spent in the womb until the age of three. In my yoga teacher training, we did a meditation exercise in which we had to imagine ourselves as newly born infants. Our teacher wanted us to believe that at that stage, we were completely happy. I raised my hand and disagreed. I felt that all of the months in my mother’s womb had already created a negative experience for me. I did not feel that I was a happy, blank slate upon my birth. My teacher continued to insist that I was. Fortunately, this author does validate what I have always felt and known. A chronically stressed mother bathes her unborn child in stress hormones, which have a tremendous influence on the baby’s nervous system. A neglectful mother will further hinder the baby’s ability to regulate her own nervous system. And a mother’s physiology will be picked up and felt by the baby. When a baby is not nurtured, it deeply affects its ability to attach and feel safe in the world.

Many of the studies on childhood adversity use scores from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study to calculate statistics on developing adult illness. In all studies performed, the higher one’s ACE score, the more likely that person is to develop disease later in life. Those who score 4 or more have been statistically shown to be 1,220 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who scored 0.  With each ACE score, a women’s risk of developing an autoimmune disorder  increases by 20%, while men’s risk increases by 10%..(While testosterone suppresses the immune system, estrogen increases the production of autoantibodies, which contribute to autoimmune disease. Certain men also have a form of a gene that protect them from depression). Sixty percent of women who scored four or more also suffered from chronic depression.
Perhaps the most alarming study was one performed in 1993 on the medical records of 126 healthy male Harvard undergraduates. It  found that 91% of the men who, thirty-five years earlier, cited that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a serious illness by middle age. And a staggering 100% of those who said their relationship with both parents was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” developed serious diseases by middle age! “The Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers concluded that no other single factor was more significantly related to illness than the degree of parental closeness one enjoyed growing up. In fact, lack of parental closeness was a more significant contributor to later disease than smoking, drinking, parental divorce, having a parent die, or being exposed to harmful, toxic environmental substances.”

Love is not a frivolous word to be casually thrown around. It is the single most important element in the life of a human being. The love of one person has the capacity to change the entire trajectory of another’s life. Attachment researcher Louis Cozolino wrote that we are not the survival of the fittest; we are the survival of the nurtured. “Those who are nurtured best survive best.” I could not agree more.

Thank you to Donna Jackson Nakazawa for your work and for helping so many of us feel understood!


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