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Childhood Stress Can Make You Ill as an Adult

Posted by on March 21, 2020 in Hazards, Issues & Diseases, Health with 0 Comments

Image Credit: Waking Times

By Dr. Mercola |  Waking Times

Prolonged stress can have life-threatening consequences not only for adults but also for children. Research shows adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can predispose them to any number of health problems later in life.

In the early days of mankind’s evolution, the stress response saved our lives by enabling us to run from predators or take down prey. Today, however, such dire circumstances are few and far between, yet we still turn on the same “life-saving” reaction to cope with countless everyday situations.

Constantly being in a stress response may have you marinating in corrosive hormones around the clock, which can raise your blood pressure, add fat to your belly, shrink your brain and even unravel your chromosomes.

Stress disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to trigger a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer’s disease. Stress can also accelerate aging by shortening your telomeres, the protective genetic structures that regulate how your cells age. In the words of Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of “Mind Over Medicine”:

“Our bodies know how to fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging, and fight infection. They even know how to heal ulcers, make skin lesions disappear and knit together broken bones! But here’s the kicker — those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t work if you’re stressed!”

Childhood Stress and Mental Health

In a March 2020 Newsweek article, Adam Piore discusses the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of a children’s medical clinical in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods.

A surprisingly large portion of her young patients struggled with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the hallmarks of which include an inability to focus, impulsivity and abnormal restlessness. Many also had severe health problems and depression. Piore writes:

“Burke Harris noticed something else unusual about these children. Whenever she asked their parents or caregivers to tell her about conditions at home, she almost invariably uncovered a major life disruption or trauma.


One child had been sexually abused by a tenant, she recalls. Another had witnessed an attempted murder. Many children came from homes struggling with the incarceration or death of a parent, or reported acrimonious divorces. Some caregivers denied there were any problems at all, but had arrived at the appointment high on drugs.”

Alarmed by the obvious trend she was witnessing in her clinic, Harris began searching for answers in the medical literature. Was childhood trauma responsible for the poor state of health of so many of her young patients?

“Childhood stress can be as toxic and detrimental to the development of the brain and body as eating lead paint chips off the wall or drinking it in the water — and should be screened for and dealt with in similar ways, in Burke Harris’ view. As California’s first Surgeon General … she is focusing on getting lawmakers and the public to act,” Piore writes.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Screening

In 2020, California is allocating $105 million to promote screening for ACEs, which have been shown to trigger toxic stress responses and epigenetic changes linked to a variety of health problems. As reported by Piore, the biological switches flipped during ACEs increase a child’s risk for:

Nicotine, alcohol and drug abuse Heart disease
Suicide Cancer
Mental illness Dementia
Impaired immune function

What’s more, these stress-induced epigenetic changes can be passed on to future generations. Indeed, you will often find that childhood trauma “runs in families,” with each subsequent generation playing out the same interpersonal dramas as their parents. According to Harris, “The social determinants of health are to the 21st century, what infectious disease was to the 20th century.”

The ACE Study

Much of what we now know about ACEs are the result of the 1998 ACE Study, which examined the relationship between childhood trauma and subsequent risky behaviors and diseases in adulthood. Categories of ACEs examined included:

Psychological abuse Physical abuse
Sexual abuse Violence against the mother
Living with household members who were substance abusers Living with mentally ill or suicidal household members
Living in a household in which a member has been or is imprisoned Early death of a parent
Neglect Separation or divorce

Of the 13,494 adults who received the questionnaire and had completed a standard medical evaluation, 70.5% responded. Of those, more than half reported experiencing at least one ACE; one-fourth reported two or more.

Not only did they find a direct “dose-dependent” relationship between the number of ACEs and future health problems and risky behaviors, childhood trauma appeared to be an independent risk factor for leading causes of death. According to the authors:

“We found a graded relationship between the number of categories of childhood exposure and each of the adult health risk behaviors and diseases that were studied.


Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, > or = 50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity.


The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.


The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.”

Origins of ACEs

In the June 2019 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, (full text is behind a paywall) Dr. Vincent J. Felitti commented on his 1998 ACE Study:

“The ACE Study was a direct outgrowth of significant counterintuitive findings derived from … the treatment of obesity in Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, California. Unexpectedly, we discovered that such major weight loss was actually threatening to many patients.


Pursuing this, we came to realize that obesity, a major public health problem from a societal standpoint, was from the involved patient’s standpoint often an unconsciously chosen solution to unrecognized traumatic life experiences that were lost in time and further protected by shame, secrecy, and social taboos against exploring certain realms of human experience.”

Upon investigation, 55% of 286 patients enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente weight loss study acknowledged sexual abuse — an absolutely staggering statistic Felitti could hardly believe at first. Many of these patients also spoke about other childhood traumas.

Since these patients unconsciously used obesity as a defense mechanism, their weight loss efforts were often unsustainable, and they’d gain all the weight back. Since the publication of the 1998 ACE Study, Felitti and co-principal investigator Dr. Robert Anda have published more than 75 articles on its findings and other follow-up investigations.


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