Informational Article: Childhood Trauma and Physical Health

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we often find that psychiatry they tend to divorce mental health issues from the rest of the systems in the body, this is something we have a lot of information to counteract. Studies that have look at trauma and long term health have shown trauma and toxic stress have profound effects on overall health not just in the brain.

Clinical, Biology and Neurochemical Studies:

If we start in the brain the main culprit we currently understand is the amygdala and wider adrenal systems are affected by trauma. During chronic childhood trauma, the development of the system that should manage stress in short bursts is changed in its very formation. Being in a situation where hypervigilance rules the world and the body is stuck in this state of stress, hyperarousal (not related to sex), and fear the bodies ability to regulate stress response is messed up. Trauma also affects prefrontal cortex causing struggles in impulse control and executive function.

These changes leave people way more susceptible to mental health issues. Those mental health disorders reinforce the negative health effects, disrupts relationships, effects education and can leave you more open to repeated trauma.

One of the main ways this seeps into the rest of the body is cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is good on its own it allows the body to protect itself and manage short periods of extreme stress. It’s a huge part of the fight or flight response.  long term periods of high stress can cause cortisol to become toxic and never fully stop called cortisol drip. This chemical is meant to keep your body in Fight, flight, freeze and feign mode even when you don’t need to be. This becomes a state that radically affects the limbic system. You’re never able to calm down naturally and means that even the positive effects cortisol does have started to be taxing and maladaptive.

Some of the ways toxic cortisol exposure affects the body: suppressing the immune system, heightening inflammation, slowing digestion, disrupting, blood sugar regulation and creating sensory hypersensitivity.

Toxic Adrenaline can: increase blood pressure, redirect blood flow, change the metabolic process, raise blood sugar, disrupt the ability to sleep, raise heart rate and disrupts normal heart rhythm.

When studying this we have learned that trauma is linked to a lot of health conditions including:

  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
  • Decreased immune function causing slower healing times and more infections
  • Diabetes
  • Dysautonomia ( a chronic dysfunction of the nervous system which has many effects)
  • Eczema
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting, IBS, IBD, constipation, GERD, gastroparesis, diarrhoea and malabsorption)
  • Heart disease
  • Hepatitis
  • Hypertension (High blood pressure)
  • Lupus and other autoimmune conditions
  • Memory and cognition issues (short term memory, issues relating to the maintaining or accessing of memories, brain fog, and executive dysfunction problems)
  • Obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Osteoarthritis & osteoporosis
  • Sensory Processing Disorders (inc extreme sensitivity to light, noise, touch, sensory overload etc)
  • Severe allergic reactions and other autoimmune disorder
  • Strokes

Not only does this relate to diagnosable health conditions, but it can also cause more disconnected symptoms from fatigue, heart palpitation, chronic undiagnosable pain, psychogenic seizures, headaches, nausea and other things. Sometimes these might be attached to the diagnosable conditions that are ignored and just called “anxiety” or “stress” dismissively or even if it is purely psychogenic we know that they are real and important. That it still needs real attention because our brains are not disconnected from our bodies.

Another effect of trauma on the brain survivors more susceptible to addiction and self-injurious behaviours. This is linked to trauma disrupting the normal function of the nucleus accumbens (pleasure centres of the brain) and the regulation of dopamine and the state of chronic hyperarousal brought on by trauma.

We have even started to see that the way genes are expressed and past down can possibly be affected by trauma.

Sociological Studies:

The ideas of trauma and health have been studied in social contexts, one of the gold standard ways of understanding this connection is Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores. These studies looked at large samples and had them mark negative childhood experiences, things that are extremely traumatic. It did leave out other things that could be listed like severe bullying, but overall it gave a good depiction of the rates of these trauma’s, showing that ~87% of the population experienced at least one adverse event. The score denotes how many events the person experienced

It noted that any ACEs negatively affect health but the higher your score the worse your health outcomes were common.

A score of 4 showed many heightened risks compared to those with a score of zero including:

  • 2X risk of having cancer
  • 2.5X risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • 2.5x risk of Hepatitis
  • 4.5x rise in rates of depression 
  • 12x rise in Suicidality
  • 400% rise in emphysema
  • 700 % rise in alcoholism

A score of 6:

  • 3000% increase in attempted suicide

A score of 7:

  • 3x rise of lung cancer
  • 3.5x rate of Ezcheemic heart disease

Some doctors and social workers have used this information to create new ways of managing health in communities. These practices tend to have large health benefits having a holistic approach. This allows people to address the situations at home, in the community, in school and other interpersonal relationships and connect it with traditional medical care. This is super important to be able to prevent future problems for children who receive this care and allows adults to understand where they are coming from, and be able to realise that yes they really do feel sick from their trauma and give them tools to understand, and helps practitioners to know social workers and mental health care have to be involved.

Sadly in the US, UK, Canada and many other places don’t work on this holistic practice of integrating social situations, mental health care and physical health. We tend to segregate care and not connect it all together.

Future studies that have expanded on this also include looking at protective factors and other risk factors in the development of trauma and wider poor health outcomes.

The CDC continues to carry out similar research but with the  Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) to monitor events of traumatic events in the population. Surveys of adverse childhood experiences have been conducted in Romania, The Czech Republic, The Republic of Macedonia, Norway, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Canada, China and Jordan us the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) to monitor ACEs in their respective countries.

So What Now?

This can seem somewhat scary, that there isn’t anything to be done with this. But I promise you this isn’t something that has to make you feel horrible. Because this is a lot of relatively new information, and even more so health care is not really including this in our care. I truly believe that as we go forward we can start addressing our bodies as a complete system, we can understand that if we feel sick it’s not coming from nowhere, and when doctors dismiss it as “psychosomatic”.

We can Create systems of care for ourselves that understands all parts of our lives are connected and important. That view makes life make so much more sense, and I hope that going forward we can wok to make a world that treats our health as interconnected and important.

You’re not doomed, yes you’re at more of struggle but all of us can push through. We can heal and we can do it armed with information and community


Sources:

  1. Got Your ACE Score?
  2. What is Adrenaline?
  3. How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris
  4. The Long Term Effects of Childhood Trauma|Kati Morton
  5. PTSD and the physical effects
  6. Adverse Childhood Experiences
  7. Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking act on and generating evidence
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