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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Depression is Not Always a “Bad” Thing

I’ve been suffering both physically and mentally these past few days. I think I was infected with another stomach bug the Monday before Christmas and for the past nine days, I lost all progress that I had been making with my digestive system in the last 2 months. The intense abdominal pain and diarrhea that I had suffered for the last 2.5 years returned. (The fact that I ingested several things on Christmas that are not Autoimmune Paleo approved didn’t help either, and left me feeling like I still have a very long way to go in terms of healing my digestive system alone). And yesterday, my visit with a new primary care physician left me feeling very depressed. She was no more sympathetic or compassionate than the last one. She did not want to repeat any blood work “because nothing would be different than it was in August”. She blamed the massive amount of hair I have been losing for the past 2 months on my new diet and did not want to have my T3 tested like the last doctor. “Why do you want that?” she asked.
“Because sometimes, T4 is not converted to T3,” I said. I told her I wanted to have a full thyroid panel done (free T3, reverse T3, etc), but she said insurance would not cover those tests.
She asked me if I was working and when I said no, asked “Why not?”. I realize that very few people can understand what it is like to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome if they have not experienced it themselves, but I would hope that a doctor would at least be able to listen compassionately and try to understand. I had explained that I was sleeping 19 hours per day in the summer, that I was not able to even say “hello” to someone, that my brain fog was so strong that I could not read or reach out to anyone for help. “I felt paralyzed,” I told her. “I felt like I was dying.”
She had NOTHING to offer me. Her only suggestion was to see a GI and get a colonoscopy (which I do not want). I asked to see an infectious disease specialist, as I know that viruses are responsible for the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She did not think that was necessary. She denied I had any problems with my adrenals and instead tried to make me feel like I had an eating disorder. “Have you been losing weight? Do you think you need to lose any more weight? What is your ideal weight?”. When I showed her the list of lab tests from the book the nutritionist I follow in California wrote, and asked her if she would consider taking any of them, she flipped to the cover, saw “The Loving Diet” and smiled dismissively. I quickly tried to defend the author, but realized neither I nor she had any power in this place. She asked what medications I was taking and I told her none- only vitamins. She wanted to know where I got these vitamins and what they were. I started to list some off the top of my head: Astragalus, Ashwaganda, Cat’s Claw, Vitamin B12, L-Glutamine…
“What are they for? I don’t know anything about these.”
I asked if there was anyone in the network who knew anything about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She said she didn’t know- that she would have to ask and get back to me later.
I went downstairs to register and wait to have my blood drawn. An anger rose in me about the medical establishment as a whole. More than 50 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disorder and an estimated 2.5 million have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Western Medicine has NOTHING to offer these people. NOTHING. They are left to fend for themselves, are forgotten, and left to live the remainder of their lives in pain and an unfunctional state. I am grateful that I have found some resources that have started to help me, but I can’t help thinking about all those who haven’t. From my experience, I have learned that anything that falls outside of the standard training that doctors have received is immediately dismissed. Patients are not being listened to, and resources that they have discovered are rejected and actually blamed for their symptoms! (My first doctor tried to blame my vitamins and the second one tried to blame my diet! For the record, I have never eaten this many vegetables in my life and I have cut out many of the harmful foods I had been eating!). This kind of attitude is not only an unfortunate consequence, it is unacceptable and harmful. I have been learning a lot of science in these past couple of months, and most of it I hear about from a nutritionist who stays on top of all the latest research, works with people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, and who regularly attends trainings by knowledgeable doctors in the field. Had I not started the AutoImmune Paleo Diet, my brain would not be working well enough for me to write this now. While I still have a long way to go, I have brought my sleeping hours down to 12-14 hours per day from 16-19, cleared a great deal of my paralyzing brain fog, and started to heal my intestines. During this time, I have also read books that dispute much of what doctors have been taught. Most of the bloodwork that they are performing is completely meaningless. Private companies are now offering much more accurate tests in a number of areas, but these tests are not covered by insurance, are very expensive, and they are not testing what the doctors have been trained to look for. This doctor asked me why I wanted to be tested for Epstein Barr and not Lyme. “You were in areas with ticks. It is more likely you have that.” I simply told her that according to the research I had done, I was not worried about having Lyme. (Besides the fact that I did not have those particular symptoms, I now know that Lyme is also caused by viruses [not bacteria!], and is not even caused by ticks!).

I returned home three hours later feeling defeated, powerless, and no better off than I went in. I sunk back into a tired depression. Later that night, I listened to Marianne Williamson’s latest lecture. To my surprise, she was much softer and more empathetic than usual. In response to someone’s question about constantly feeling depressed and anxious, she mentioned a study by an anthropologist on depressed chimpanzees. As in humans, a similar percentage of chimpanzees display characteristics of depression such as social withdrawal, hyper-vigilence, trouble sleeping, etc.. In this study, the chimpanzees who displayed depressed qualities were physical removed from their tribe. Marianne asked the audience what they thought happened to the remaining chimps when no longer around their depressed members after the researchers returned within a year.

It turned out that all of the remaining chimps were found dead! It was hypothesized that the depressed chimps served as a warning system to the others! They were the ones who were watching for predators, who stayed up and were more vigilant. Without them, there was no one to sound an alarm!
This story instantly perked me up and reminded me that my feelings were valid. There was a good reason I was feeling this way! I also remembered a similar story that Glennon Doyle Melton talks about: canaries in the coal mines. In the old days, miners used to take caged canaries down with them in the mines. When the canaries stopped singing, the miners knew the air was getting too toxic to breathe and that they would die if they didn’t get out.
Sensitive people who easily get depressed are the world’s alarm system! We know when something is wrong. There are a lot of harmful things happening on the earth right now, and one of them is the lack of attention being paid to the toxins in our environment and in our food, as well as the propagation and mutation of viruses that are making us sick. Right now, 1 in 50 children are autistic. It is projected that in the year 2030, which is only 15 short years away, 1 in 2 children will be autistic! This is a staggering figure! The children are warning us. We NEED to listen. Women have also been historically dismissed and labeled crazy for their physical symptoms. 70 years ago, women did not suffer from the menopause systems they do today. The problem is NOT women’s hormones. The problem is the radiation and toxicity that our earth is filled with today. Today, 20 and 30 year old women are experiencing the symptoms of menopause! We can no longer ignore these warnings!

The first thing that we need to do to begin to address these issues is to actually hear one another with complete openness and a beginner’s mind in order to gain an understanding of the root causes behind these diseases. There is no room for ego, no room for an “I know more than you because I hold an MD and you do not.” We must listen to those who are presently struggling with chronic illnesses, to stay on top of the latest research studies, to hear what those who are working with chronically ill patients are learning from the use of supplements, nutrition, and perception changes. The only way that we can begin to heal the earth and ourselves is to open our hearts fully so we can learn from one another and make changes to reverse the harm that has been done. Our emotions are valid. They are telling us very important things.