by Nicola Schuler, CNTP, MNT and Dr. Miles Nichols
This week we are writing on trauma:
Trauma is not uncommon. One study in the US found that 74.2% of women and 81.3% of men reported experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime (Mock SE, 2010).
How does trauma affect the body and how we can resolve it using Functional Medicine?
- TRAUMA: a psychological, emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event or experience. Examples are being in a serious accident, having an illness or injury, losing a loved one or going through a divorce. It includes more extreme experiences that are severely damaging, such as abuse, rape or torture.
The trauma or the incident is typically said to be ‘outside the realm of normal human experience’ and that it would be a highly distressing experience for anyone (Levine, 1997).
Three categories of TRAUMA have been established:
- Complex trauma
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD
- Developmental trauma disorder
SYMPTOMS of trauma are numerous and may appear at different points in time (Levine, 1997):
- Hypervigilance or being ‘on guard’ at all times
- Feeling helpless
- Extreme sensitivity to light or sound
- Exaggerated emotional or startle responses
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Abrupt mood reactions including rage, fear, temper tantrums or frequent crying
- Shame, guilt, self-blame
- Reduced ability to cope with stress
- Difficulty sleeping
- Panic attacks and anxiety
- Avoidance behaviors, avoiding certain situations
THE BIOLOGY OF TRAUMA: What are trauma’s effects on the body?
There are a number of physiological ways in which trauma appears in the body and can lead to a cascade of biological changes and stress responses (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014):
- Changes in Brain Function
- Changes in HPA Axis (or Stress Response) Function
- Higher Propensity for Chronic Illness
- Higher Propensity for Mental Health Issues
- Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) or Childhood Trauma
- Epigenetic Effects
- Changes in the Gut Microbiome
The mechanisms for many of the changes are complex. Rather than go into details on each, we will just focus on the epigenetic effects in this article because they are fascinating and relevant to how stress can become prevalent and pass from generation to generation.
Epigenetic Effects: Epigenetics is how trauma can affect our long-term health as well as that of future generations. Chronic illness is a result of genetic and epigenetic factors (Klengel T, 2015). A person may have a genetic predisposition towards a disease. The disease won’t necessarily materialize, unless epigenetic factors i.e. environmental influences ‘turn on’ the gene. Environmental factors, particularly severe stress or trauma, can lead to lifelong changes in the form of epigenetic modifications that can impact health or disease (Klengel T, 2015). Trauma is one of the epigenetic factors that can turn on ‘negative’ genes. It can be a trigger, or most likely one of many triggers, for chronic disease.
Trauma can even have biological and behavioral consequences on the offspring of exposed individuals (Youssef NA, 2018). There is strong evidence of an enduring effect of trauma exposure passed to offspring trans-generationally via the epigenetic inheritance mechanism of DNA methylation alterations which can change the expression of genes (Youssef NA, 2018).
For example, a mother experiencing stress, with high cortisol levels during pregnancy, may lead to the child having a larger amygdala (fear center in the brain). This could contribute to the child being more hypervigilant towards stressors that would not be an issue for other people. This would then contribute to a myriad of other physiological changes in the nervous system, metabolism and cardiovascular system. This may contribute to increased risk for chronic disease.
Perception of Stress: There is a big difference between a stress itself and the perception of that stress. For example, primates have been studied to look at how their cortisol levels respond to different situations. One alpha male leader of a group of primates may have very little stress hormone output when another alpha male from a different tribe is close by because that first male does not feel threatened. However, the other male may have a high output of corticosteroid (stress hormone) because that male interprets the situation as potentially threatening. The interpretation of the situation is more impactful than the situation itself for the release of stress hormones.
The same is true of humans. Someone who feels continually threatened by family pressures, economic constraints and a toxic work environment may have chronically elevated cortisol levels and be much more susceptible to chronic diseases. Another individual in similar circumstances may downplay those issues and focus on their core friend network where they happen to be honored and respected and remain largely unthreatened. The identification and interpretation are both important for when a person feels threatened and releases stress hormones. The epigenetic variables before birth also play into how large and active the amygdala is and how sensitive to stress a person is.
As you can see, there is a complex mix of variables that is important to consider with relation to stress and trauma. The perception of and identification with traumatic experiences plays a role as well as genetics, upbringing, personal development work, practices like meditation and more.
Please stay tuned and read our next article on Trauma Part #2 where we will discuss solutions on how to manage and address trauma using Functional Medicine.
As always, please get in touch with us. If you or someone you know is suffering from trauma, get in touch with our clinic today. Book a free 15-min discovery call to see how we can help you with your symptoms. We can answer your questions and help you book an initial consult with one of the functional medicine doctors in our clinic.