The research presented in the past 3 posts taught me that adversity, trauma and stress during pregnancy as well as during birth and infancy increase risk for chronic illness such as type 1 diabetes and asthma. And that my mother and I had experienced similarly stressful events.
This post summarizes findings I’ve described in the past 3 posts. I refer to these early risk factors as adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs), building on the increasingly recognized research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on long-term health.
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I learned that distress during this early period of our lives and the separation of mothers and babies at birth affects risk for other chronic diseases too. These include high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Collectively these are referred to as the metabolic syndrome or “Syndrome X” (see Fetal Origins of Adult Disease and my post about the cell danger response).
While such a finding can seem overwhelming for parents since stress during pregnancy is impossible to avoid and is such a normal part of life these days, the new understanding is more specific about the nature of these stressors.
It offers tools for identifying such events as well as for working with them. This new awareness also provides insights for prevention and treatment, including for parents as well as children, even months or years after they occur.
The discoveries suggested that the same kinds of events in my own prenatal life, birth and infancy were risk factors for my asthma, which started when I was 5 or 6 years old and continued into adulthood, although in a milder form.
These findings made me wonder whether my early experiences could have also affected my risk of developing ME/CFS (myalgic encephalitis / chronic fatigue syndrome), which didn’t start until I was in my 30s.
I eventually came across a study suggesting that stress during pregnancy and other early events might indeed play a role in risk for chronic fatigue syndrome (Dietert, 2008).
Perhaps the most life-changing insight in my initial explorations of the research, however, was that helping mothers heal from the effects of these rarely recognized adverse life events improved and often cured their children’s asthma (Madrid, 2005).
This was especially true when children were less than 9 years old.
It made me wonder whether similar treatment could improve, cure or prevent type 1 diabetes in kids given that they had the same kinds of risk factors.
Or whether similar approaches could help adults with T1D, asthma or other chronic illnesses, myself included.
I eventually came across research suggesting a fascinating explanation for how early risk factors for chronic illness appear to exert their effects – as well as a potential insight into how treating a mom can help her child’s asthma.
Research in the field of epigenetics is showing us that maternal experiences and behaviors alter her baby’s genes (here’s one of my favorite articles about this finding, by journalist Dan Hurley in Discover magazine, June 2015, who also has type 1 diabetes).
It wasn’t the genes themselves that changed as a result of life experiences however. It was the way genes functioned.
The particular genes identified made babies more sensitive to stress. In other words, early adverse experiences and other environmental stressors increased perceptions of threat in a baby’s nervous system.
It turned out that such changes can last a lifetime.
And they can affect a mother’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Interestingly, the study Dan Hurley described also showed that epigenetic changes, which stem from chemicals that attach to genes and alter their expression, can sometimes be removed.
This is what I suspect happened with Tony Madrid’s work with moms and the effect on their kids. Stressful events changed mothers’ natural capacities to feel love and bond with their babies. This affected the health, genes and physiology of their babies. When mothers healed, the effects of their recoveries reversed these changes in their children.
More research has emerged since my own first discoveries.
Pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, writes eloquently about how there is now strong scientific consensus that early experiences interact with our biology, genes and physiology to shape long-term health and that epigenetics is helping make sense of these new perspectives (1)Shonkoff, J. P., et al. (2012). “The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.” Pediatrics 129(1): e232-246; p. 235.
Metabolics researcher Dr. Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, has described the cell danger response (CDR), showing that an accumulation of effects from environmental stressors can prolong this normally short-lived survival strategy to cause disease. Adverse events, including infections, can trigger CDRs. Exposures that affect risk for disease begin early in life during development. They include environmental stress during pregnancy as well as around the time of birth, in infancy, and during childhood. I’ve introduced the CDR and written about Naviaux’ study on ME/CFS as an example of how it drives disease.
Upcoming Posts: Are Stress and Trauma in Childhood Potential Risk Factors for Chronic Illness?
The research showing that stress during pregnancy, birth and infancy increases risk for chronic illness offers a wealth of potential for prevention, treatment and manage of chronic diseases of all kinds.
From what I learned about early risk factors for chronic disease, I wondered whether I, like the little rat pups in Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf et al’s study described by Dan Hurley in Discover, had internalized perceptions of threat that were affecting my health.
Maybe I, too, was experiencing the effects of early life events and altered genes as risk factors for my chronic fatigue syndrome.
Given what Tony Madrid had discovered and then reproduced in his asthma studies, I wondered whether I could heal as well. Even though I’m an adult.
I decided to work with my health from these perspectives and to continue my research explorations.
I found another set of intriguing studies in type 1 diabetes as I scoured the stacks for the articles presented in the initial posts of the series.
Some of these studies were looking at whether serious life events in childhood are a risk factor for type 1 diabetes.
In the next part of the series I’ll share what I learned next. And I’ll tell you what it taught me about events from my own childhood that could have contributed further to my risk for ME/CFS and that I’d never considered to be anything other than normal.
Want to read about these early risk factors for chronic illness from the beginning? Here’s the intro post about type 1 diabetes, and post 2 on asthma. Post 3 describes how early life events affect genes. For an overview of what I learned in the past 15+ years here’s a summary. Or you can download my free ebook overview. My personal story gives you an idea of what I’ve learned and how it makes sense of my chronic illness. If you’re thinking about working with symptoms from these perspectives here’s a list of therapies.
|↑1||Shonkoff, J. P., et al. (2012). “The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.” Pediatrics 129(1): e232-246; p. 235|