March 8th, 2022
What happens to us negatively can pass over us or stick with us leading to stagnation and frustration. When a child lives through trauma, two paths will present themselves (a simplification of a complex reality). They can learn to overcome and grow from the pain and become more grounded in their new norm. Conversely, they can fall into victim mode and become the teller of their story from a place of less than, shame and or anger. It is clear which of these two paths serves the child and adolescent. What then determines the path taken?
Why do two people experience the same event in dramatically different ways? I am going to only focus on the upstream issues that drive this dual reality and not the trauma itself for this piece.
"Epidemiological studies reveal the importance of family function and early life events as predictors of health in adulthood. As adults, victims of childhood physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, family conflict, and conditions of harsh, inconsistent discipline are at considerably greater risk for mental illness, as well as for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These difficult conditions, in part, define the developmental origin of mental illness in adolescence and adult life." (Meaney et. al. 2005)
Epigenetic data would tell us that the earliest life experiences set our genes and thus self up for a path to be chosen. The brilliant work of Dr. Moshe Szyf has illustrated this pathway. Dr. Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney have been studying the effects of environmental triggers on the genome and have conclusively proven that the behaviors and traits that we see as newborns and children are dictated in large part by maternal environmental and lifestyle experiences. The DNA can be affected after conception well into childhood which is both beneficial and detrimental based on the signal recieved. (Szyf et. al. 2012)
Since the days of Naturalists Darwin and Lamarck, humans have thought about the changes that occur within mammalian species as they attempt to adapt to the ever changing environment. Current times are no different as temperatures and sea levels rise, food has dramatically changed, sedentary attitudes plague humans, mental stress is at an all time high with all of the media negativity and so much more to deal with.
All mammals have cassettes of genes with the sole purpose of dealing with extremes of all environmental inputs. Some genes encode for stress proteins like the class of temperature shock proteins, heat and cold shock proteins. Others encode for adrenal gland cortisol receptors to handle differential psychological and physical stress. Further yet, are groups that encode for receptors that sense any physical perturbations.
Taken all together, we see a picture of mammals having the ability to change as needed to stress or environmental shifts. If stress or shifts do not occur, then logically there will be no adaptation. Whether this is good or bad is now being understood.
Let's look at the hallmark research by Moshe Szyf. He looked at the response of rat offspring to differential social grooming and subsequent stress responses over time. Animals that were poorly groomed by a mother rat had higher long term stress responses because of brain stress receptor changes that occurred. This study showed that a baby is primed epigeneticaly to expect a tough world if his mother was not a loving groomer. Conversely, the groomed offspring had reduced receptors for stress expecting a happier world.
Environmental signals as those above can be positive or negative, but they have an effect nonetheless. It is up to us to figure out which inputs are beneficial.
"The finding from the animal work has also been replicated in humans. Suderman, McGowan, Hal- lett, Meaney, and Szyf showed that a similar pattern of response to childhood abuse is associated with DNA methylation differences throughout the genomic region spanning the 61⁄2 million base-pair region centered at the GR (NR3C1) gene in the hip- pocampus of adult humans. The DNA methylation differences associated with child abuse bear a strik- ing resemblance to DNA methylation differences between adult offspring of high and low maternal care rats. This provides evidence for an analogous cross-species epigenetic and transcriptional response to early life environment." (Szyf et. al. 2012)
These researchers have given us a baseline for understanding how adverse childhood events affect some children more than others, i.e. why does the same event affect one person taking them down a negative path while the other chooses to rise above. The answer appears to be heavily related to early epigenetic events that occur in utero, post natally and in the earliest years of a child's life.
Whether these stressful events happened to a child in utero or after birth, the epigenetic marks causing disease worsened with increasing stress in all studies that have looked at them. There are exponential ways to alter gene expression. They are called daily life. And life is always changing. Thus, it behooves us to provide a safe and consistent environment for mothers and their children to grow in to mitigate these epigenetic trauma risks on the front end as well as the later years.
Altering our genetic expression is called Epigenetic Plasticity. It turns out to be highly evolutionarily protective in an ever-changing environment. For thousands of years it has served us. However, if our DNA can be read in so many different ways depending on the changing world, then why are we falling apart as a species. Why do we have the highest rates of mental health issues now? This question is related in part to modern society.
The answer is that humans in an effort to be comfortable and independent have negatively altered the environment to a breaking point. We are inundated by chemical exposure, increased mental stress and poor-quality food. We have lost our family support structures whether it be the extended family or even just a two parent structure. The negative exposures are high and the structural supports are low. We are receiving poor epigenetic signals routinely from very young ages. In essence, we are the poorly licked and groomed mice. These signals are especially hammering the poorest among us as we have seen repeatedly during the pandemic.
We no longer have the historical stresses of food scarcity, temperature swings in a non-climate-controlled environment and microbial friend exposures of the recent past. We no longer spend enough time in self care and protection of our mothers and children. We far too often see single mothers doing it all for their children. We far too often see married women working and still doing all of the child rearing responsibilities after work. We far too often see grandparents raising their grandchildren with less available energy and vigor that the task requires (no fault of theirs as age plays that factor). While we honor and love the hard work of each person as described, the answer has to be more support and safety for these mother, grandparent and child groupings. We need to return to the days of it takes a village of loving and caring people to raise a society. We need to raise the bar on the quality of life for the children of this country.
You may ask, what does this have to do with the trauma that is endured? It is my belief that all of the upstream epigenetic events are the keys to slowing the train of poor mental health that allows trauma to be more devastating wherever we meet it. We could be more resilient as a society with stronger upstream supports that provide better epigenetic marks. In essence, we could be the highly licked and groomed mice.
Below are two podcasts that are worth your time. Trauma is a very difficult topic to discuss let alone live with. I purposely did not dive deep here as that would take pages and pages. However, as a society, we need to make it ok to talk about trauma and look for effective measures of resolution. I have great hope for the emerging field of psychedelic therapy for trauma sufferers. The early research is very impressive. Outcomes are far better than conventional therapy and daily medication. As this mind altering therapy becomes primetime, we will see people shed their masks of pain and trauma finding a more wholesome and authentic self. I know this sounds a bit new age, but let me tell you, it is far from it. It is truly impressive scientific research.
In the meantime, find places where you can support another who struggles. Unfortunately, trauma is everywhere leaving all of us with opportunities to help.
Living with trauma is difficult but important. Rising above trauma is even more so,
Three podcasts to look at in this space:
#293 lays out an amazing story of resilience and growth after incredible trauma followed by #304 is more of a what to do podcast. #571 is long but very very interesting. Enjoy.
A really interesting article drags us into an entirely new space, the virome. I have been watching this information for a few years as it is in its infancy. How viruses that reside in our intestines like our microbiome of bacteria affects us is still unknown. Today we have a first study to look at a possible reality. They affect our cognition. I know this is silly and Star Trekkian. But, I suspect it is real.
What I think we are going to find out is that organisms including viruses, bacteria and the macrobes like parasites live in harmony together throughout our hollow spaces, i.e. nasal respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and vaginal vault. They compete for real estate and dominance but symbiotically like all natural ecosystems. The lions never want to eat all of the antelope lest they lose a food source. They all work together to provide for their survival and vitality which in turn provides our bodies with the same.
What we now know definitively is that they are absolutely affected by our lifestyle choices. When we head down the path of modern American processed food intake, sloth and chemical exposure, we push the organisms to a certain pattern that leads to less vitality for them and us. Certain groups take over the real estate and they are not in keeping with our best health. We also now know that they affect how we think and act. So crazy to think of this reality.
From the Article: Growing evidence implicates the gut microbiome in cognition. Viruses, the most abundant life entities on the planet, are a commonly overlooked component of the gut virome, dominated by the Caudovirales and Microviridae bacteriophages. Here, we show in a discovery (n = 114) and a validation cohort (n = 942) that subjects with increased Caudovirales and Siphoviridae levels in the gut microbiome had better performance in executive processes and verbal memory. Conversely, increased Microviridae levels were linked to a greater impairment in executive abilities. Microbiota transplantation from human donors with increased specific Caudovirales(>90% from the Siphoviridae family) levels led to increased scores in the novel object recognition test in mice and up-regulated memory-promoting immediate early genes in the prefrontal cortex. Supplementation of the Drosophila diet with the 936 group of lactococcal Siphoviridae bacteriophages resulted in increased memory scores and upregulation of memory-involved brain genes. Thus, bacteriophages warrant consideration as novel actors in the microbiome-brain axis.
Below is a diagram from the Mayneris article