Effect of childhood on our genes

Yesterday I attended a conference about ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. It was about making Scotland the first ACE aware nation in the world. It was certainly thought provoking. 

I particularly enjoyed the talk from Dr Nadine Burke Harris about the physical implications of what she refers to as “Toxic stress”. 

Toxic Stress

The stress response is a physical and emotional response designed to help us escape sabre toothed tigers. This set of responses is designed to give us the best chance of surviving when fighting or running away from a predator.

  1. The pre-frontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain – is disengaged, because it’s too slow to help us survive. Taking time to think and work out options, in the middle of an attack, is a bad idea.
  2. The heart rate increases
  3. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body – preparing our organs for instant response. Adrenaline also impacts on the immune system. Not really possible to ask the tiger to come back tomorrow because you have a bad cold right now. Our immune system is directed to preparing to fight infection from any injuries. 
  4. The pain response is adjusted to allow us to keep fighting or running even when injured. 

This all makes total sense – when fighting tigers. 

But what if the threat is violence from a parent, that could happen every day of your childhood. 

What if the threat is emotional or sexual abuse where you are being hurt but not necessarily physically. 

In these situations, the body reacts in exactly the same way. It treats the thing that hurts you emotionally in exactly the same way as if it was going to hurt you physically. 

Epigenetics

In itself this is bad enough, but this toxic stress has an effect on your genes through Epigentics. 

Image result for musical notes and notations

The way Nadine described Epigentics was great. If your DNA is the music notes on a piece of music, Epigentics are the musical notation that tells you what to do with the notes such as speeding up, slowing down and pausing

Epigenetics are like a series of little switches that activate and deactive things in your DNA

Because of these Epigenetic switches, right through into adulthood, when the threat is no longer present, the physiological response can remain.

This can lead to physical issues such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, weight issues and chronic pain conditions such as Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia. 


All is not lost!

There are two ways to address this:

  1. We can work we children to offset the effect of any adverse experiences and prevent them from becoming toxic stress
  2. We can work with adults to re-programme the interpretation of the childhood experiences and switch the Epigenetic switches off again. 

One thought on “Effect of childhood on our genes

  1. David Shaw

    Great article Dawn. I have experienced and seen first hand how adversity in Childhood causes major problems in adulthood. In Scotland, we have a great opportunity to turn things around and build a safe and healthy society for us all. I am encouraged to see an acknowledgement from the Scottish government of the conditions poverty, parental substance abuse, neglect and child abuse which create toxic stress. Will much needs to be done to address the problems children face its a good start.

    Reply

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