Many things can determine the possibility that autoimmune disorders develop as we age. Genetics, nutrition, stress, toxic exposure and infections can all weaken and attack the immune system. These are all factors that have been studied for a long time. However, what we are now realizing is the fascinating connection between autoimmune disorders (that show up later in life) and childhood trauma.
These events, called Adverse Childhood Experiences (otherwise known as ACEs), have had a profound impact on the health of adults later in life. Events included physical and emotional abuse, the loss of a parent, and continual lack of support or neglect within a family structure. These are all identified as Adverse Childhood Experiences and can result in a long-term exposure to stress, leading to health issues as an adult.
The research behind this was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in 1996. Called the “ACE Study” in short, the study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 1998. Patients who were identified as experiencing an Adverse Childhood Experience ended up developing higher rates of cancer and mental health issues compared to adults who had not.
Long-term stress can also increase the risk of autoimmune disease in someone who has had an Adverse Childhood Experience. The key is in the gene that is activated after the stressor has occurred. The human body has a series of responses to stressors that vary greatly according to each situation and person. However, one such response is the flood of inflammatory stress hormones that can result from a traumatic experience. This inflammatory response can activate a series of genes that contribute to autoimmune disease.
Dr. Donna Jackson Nakazawa persisted to further examine the possible link between Adverse Childhood Experiences and autoimmune disease based of her own experience. While her personal story is powerful, it may not necessarily be supportive of the majority of people. In her adult life, Dr. Nakazawa was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system. While seeking treatment, she was asked by her own doctor about any past trauma in her life. It turns out that her doctor was one of few doctors seeing a link between trauma and the chronic, systemic inflammation she was suffering from as a symptom of her illness. Her doctor decided that this question was an avenue worth pursuing.
Remembering the loss of her father at age 12 due to a botched surgery, it opened up the discussion of the possibility of childhood trauma that lead to her autoimmune issues. Connecting these two together, she has been an advocate for more research on childhood trauma and adult illness. Since then, hundreds of studies have backed up the Kaiser Permanente-CDC led study, though there is still a lack of awareness regarding this health issue.
Being in a constant state of stress resulting from traumatic experiences can be taxing and lead to many ill health effects. This chronic stress reaction leads to an increase in the inflammatory response, which can result in long-term chronic illness development.
Recognizing that your past childhood experiences can influence your health is an important step in healing. It’s important to consider a holistic protocol for total well being, in order to have a beneficial impact on the past trauma to reduce the body’s “auto pilot” reaction. While treating the body is good, treating the mind and its awareness of stressors can help the body to heal on all levels and increase your quality of life.