Exposure to childhood trauma affects the way our DNA is methylated. The gene children inherit from their biological parents provide information that guides their development e.g. how tall they are? Skin color? and so much more, how this information is expressed depends solely on the experiences, environment, feelings and thoughts of the child.
During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks that determines how much or little of the gene is expressed. This collection of chemical mark is known as the “epigenome” the different experiences children have re-arrange those chemical marks, this explains why genetically identical twins can exhibit different behaviors, skills, health and achievements.
That’s why the childhood years from prenatal period to late adolescence are the “building block” years that help set the stage for adult relationships, behaviors and social outcomes.
During this period child can either be set for life positively or negatively through the Adverse Childhood Experiences. Advance childhood experiences or ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood(0-17yrs). In 1995 The ACE study was done by Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Robert Anda at the CDC which carried through 1997, and together, they asked 17,421 adults about their history of exposure to what they called ACEs, those include physical, Emotional or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, parental Mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration, parental separation and domestic violence. For every yes, you get a point on your ACE score and then what they did, they correlated these ACE scores against health outcomes and the findings were striking.
67% of the population had at least one ACE score and 1 in 8 had four or more ACEs. The other thing was there was a dose response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes, the higher our ACE score, the worse our health outcome.
For a person with an ACE score or 4 or more, their relative risk of chronically abstractive pulmonary disease was 2 and 1/2 times that of an ACE score of 0. For depression, it was 4 and 1/2 times, for suicide cases, it was 12 times.
A person with an ACE score of 7 or more had triple the lifetime risk of lung cancer and 3 and 1/2 times the risk of all kinds of chronic diseases.
Which means diseases like heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, arthritis have nothing to do with your genes but solely on your environment, your feeding, your thoughts and feelings.
Exposure to early diversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children, it affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning and on MRI scans we see measurable differences in the amygdala (the brain’s fear response center)
Some people look at this information and say if you have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to be involved in bad behavior that will ruin your health, this isn’t science , it’s bad behavior, it turns out this is exactly where the science comes in because even though you don’t engage in high risk behavior, your still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer, this has to do with the high pituitary-adrenal axis, the body’s stress response system that governs our fight or flight response.
This is how it works, imagine you’re walking in a forest and you see a tiger, immediately your first response is either to run or fight the tiger. Your stress response system is activated and your mobilizing resources from your gut, your elimination system, your higher brain centers and putting that energy in your muscles to fight for your life or run for your life. But this system works great if you’re in a forest, but what happens when the tiger comes home and the stress system is activated over and over again, the tiger in this case is your spouse, your boss, rent that’s due, it goes from being lifesaving to health damaging, so your body is still releasing Cortisol and adrenaline.
Stress inhibits the body and makes it susceptible to all sorts of disease. So imagine this system being activated in a 5year old child, who doesn’t have the tools to deal and process trauma because she/he still has a brain that is not fully developed.
When we understand the mechanism of a disease, when we know not only which pathways are disrupted but how, then as health care practitioners, it’s our job to use this science for prevention and treatment.
Guest Written by Joselyn Kajumba, Programs Director at Mental Health Focus Uganda.