How childhood trauma breaks our biochemistry and fuels disease

Traumatic events during childhood can change a person’s stress response in ways that lead to a lifetime of pain and illness.

By Sina McCullough MD

August, 2021

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the most overlooked risk factor for chronic and autoimmune disease. ACEs are unresolved childhood trauma, which can be physical, mental, or emotional, such as:

  • Parents separating or divorcing
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Mental illness in the family
  • Incarceration of a family member
  • Substance abuse by a family member
  • Financial difficulties
  • Bullied in school
  • Childhood illness that required hospitalization

Numerous scientific studies have concluded that ACEs are associated with increased risk for chronic and autoimmune disease. In women, the correlation between ACEs and developing an autoimmune disease in adulthood is as strongly linked as smoking and cancer. Furthermore, the more ACEs you have, the higher your risk of disease.

For example, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, involving 15,300 men and women, concluded that if you have two or more ACEs:

You are 100 percent more likely to develop a rheumatic disease; you have a 70 percent increased risk of developing a TH1 dominant autoimmune condition, such as: Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or psoriasis; and you have an 80 percent increased risk of developing a TH2 dominant autoimmune condition, such as lupus, IBD, asthma, allergies, or chemical sensitivities.

ACEs can contribute to disease, in part, because they prime you to be in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. Here’s a familiar example: If you walk down the street and a tiger jumps out from behind a building, your body goes into a state of fight-or-flight. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which causes a release of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals that are designed to help you get out of the stressful situation i.e., to either fight the tiger or run away.

The fight-or-flight response is a fantastic tool in that type of acute situation because it can save your life. However, most of us spend roughly 70 percent of our day in fight-or-flight, which can lead to disease. You may not think you are in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. After all, how many tigers do you see while walking down the street? But you don’t have to be chased by a literal tiger or under physical stress to be in fight-or-flight, the evening news is more than enough. The cause is irrelevant, at a biochemical level, your body views mental and emotional stress the same way it does wild tigers.

Furthermore, as a child, when you are faced with a threat, whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional, you usually can’t fight or run away. Therefore, the fight-or-flight impulse cannot be switched off, which results in changes to your physiology. For instance, childhood trauma resets the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, which lowers your stress threshold. In other words, you become stressed more easily. The resulting chronic low-grade level of stress can lead to changes in your biology, including:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Increased free radical production
  • Over-active sympathetic nervous system
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Dysbiosis and leaky gut

These biological changes can lead to the development of chemical sensitivities, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

The good news is, while ACEs can lead to illness, resolving ACEs can lead to complete healing. For instance, one of my clients was diagnosed with lupus. Initially, we identified and addressed his physical triggers and the lupus went into remission. In order to achieve complete healing, we began exploring the possibility that lupus existed because of unresolved childhood trauma.

Ultimately, we discovered he was carrying unresolved emotions about his father that were preventing him from healing. His father was obsessed with his children playing sports. When my client didn’t perform to his dad’s expectations, he was punished—sometimes with running laps after the ball game, always with verbal abuse. As a child, he interpreted the situation as “I’m not good enough.” He held onto that belief during both childhood and adulthood. However, once he transmuted the associated emotions, the limiting belief dissolved—along with the lupus.

ACEs fuel disease by creating limiting beliefs that can make you chronically sick. The most common limiting belief is “I’m not good enough,” which ultimately means you don’t feel loved. When you don’t feel loved, especially as a child, you don’t feel safe and you don’t view the world as a safe place. Hence, you live in a constant state of fear—constantly on guard, looking for the next tiger.

I believe that not feeling loved is the No. 1 root cause of illness and disease. Most of us live our lives never feeling “good enough” or “loved.” We usually develop that belief in childhood and carry it with us until we die. Consequently, many of us look for external validation or approval in an attempt to find love and acceptance—even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. So, how do you break that cycle? How do you fix the feeling of not being loved so you can resolve your childhood trauma and fully heal yourself or prevent a disease from forming in the first place?

You learn to love yourself.

When you love and accept yourself exactly the way you are, your old limiting beliefs dissolve and you realize you are worthy of love just the way you are. You realize your inherent value as a human being. That new belief changes your perception of the childhood traumas you have been holding onto and you are finally able to release the anger, guilt, shame, and anxiety. You no longer live in a space of fear—afraid of not being loved or not being “good enough.” You are good enough. Consequently, you shift out of the sympathetic nervous system and chronic fight-or-flight and into the parasympathetic nervous system state of rest and repair where disease dissolves because you have tamed your childhood tigers.

Loving and accepting yourself can be challenging. One helpful tool is mirror work. Stand in front of a mirror, look deep into your eyes and say out loud, “I love you ___ (insert your name) and I accept you exactly the way you are.”

For most of us, the mirror has become our enemy. Hence, we criticize ourselves each time we see our reflection. The mirror reveals what we are most afraid of by reflecting back to us how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about life. However, if you allow it, the mirror can show you which issues to address in order to set yourself free. It can be a key to developing a deep, healing relationship with yourself in which you no longer chase the moving carrot in search of external validation and you no longer need to run from your childhood traumas. Instead, you will finally reach a state of joy and gratitude that you can tap into at any moment, and that nobody can take from you.

Try mirror work for 30 days. You may not initially believe the words you are saying. But, one day, instead of criticizing yourself, you will wake up, stand in front of the mirror, and feel excited to meet your new best friend.

Traumatic events during childhood can change a person’s stress response in ways that lead to a lifetime of pain and illness. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

How childhood trauma breaks our biochemistry and fuels disease

By Sina McCullough MD

August, 2021

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the most overlooked risk factor for chronic and autoimmune disease. ACEs are unresolved childhood trauma, which can be physical, mental, or emotional, such as:

  • Parents separating or divorcing
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Mental illness in the family
  • Incarceration of a family member
  • Substance abuse by a family member
  • Financial difficulties
  • Bullied in school
  • Childhood illness that required hospitalization

Numerous scientific studies have concluded that ACEs are associated with increased risk for chronic and autoimmune disease. In women, the correlation between ACEs and developing an autoimmune disease in adulthood is as strongly linked as smoking and cancer. Furthermore, the more ACEs you have, the higher your risk of disease.

For example, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, involving 15,300 men and women, concluded that if you have two or more ACEs:

You are 100 percent more likely to develop a rheumatic disease; you have a 70 percent increased risk of developing a TH1 dominant autoimmune condition, such as: Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or psoriasis; and you have an 80 percent increased risk of developing a TH2 dominant autoimmune condition, such as lupus, IBD, asthma, allergies, or chemical sensitivities.

ACEs can contribute to disease, in part, because they prime you to be in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. Here’s a familiar example: If you walk down the street and a tiger jumps out from behind a building, your body goes into a state of fight-or-flight. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which causes a release of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals that are designed to help you get out of the stressful situation i.e., to either fight the tiger or run away.

The fight-or-flight response is a fantastic tool in that type of acute situation because it can save your life. However, most of us spend roughly 70 percent of our day in fight-or-flight, which can lead to disease. You may not think you are in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. After all, how many tigers do you see while walking down the street? But you don’t have to be chased by a literal tiger or under physical stress to be in fight-or-flight, the evening news is more than enough. The cause is irrelevant, at a biochemical level, your body views mental and emotional stress the same way it does wild tigers.

Furthermore, as a child, when you are faced with a threat, whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional, you usually can’t fight or run away. Therefore, the fight-or-flight impulse cannot be switched off, which results in changes to your physiology. For instance, childhood trauma resets the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, which lowers your stress threshold. In other words, you become stressed more easily. The resulting chronic low-grade level of stress can lead to changes in your biology, including:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Increased free radical production
  • Over-active sympathetic nervous system
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Dysbiosis and leaky gut

These biological changes can lead to the development of chemical sensitivities, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

The good news is, while ACEs can lead to illness, resolving ACEs can lead to complete healing. For instance, one of my clients was diagnosed with lupus. Initially, we identified and addressed his physical triggers and the lupus went into remission. In order to achieve complete healing, we began exploring the possibility that lupus existed because of unresolved childhood trauma.

Ultimately, we discovered he was carrying unresolved emotions about his father that were preventing him from healing. His father was obsessed with his children playing sports. When my client didn’t perform to his dad’s expectations, he was punished—sometimes with running laps after the ball game, always with verbal abuse. As a child, he interpreted the situation as “I’m not good enough.” He held onto that belief during both childhood and adulthood. However, once he transmuted the associated emotions, the limiting belief dissolved—along with the lupus.

ACEs fuel disease by creating limiting beliefs that can make you chronically sick. The most common limiting belief is “I’m not good enough,” which ultimately means you don’t feel loved. When you don’t feel loved, especially as a child, you don’t feel safe and you don’t view the world as a safe place. Hence, you live in a constant state of fear—constantly on guard, looking for the next tiger.

I believe that not feeling loved is the No. 1 root cause of illness and disease. Most of us live our lives never feeling “good enough” or “loved.” We usually develop that belief in childhood and carry it with us until we die. Consequently, many of us look for external validation or approval in an attempt to find love and acceptance—even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. So, how do you break that cycle? How do you fix the feeling of not being loved so you can resolve your childhood trauma and fully heal yourself or prevent a disease from forming in the first place?

You learn to love yourself.

When you love and accept yourself exactly the way you are, your old limiting beliefs dissolve and you realize you are worthy of love just the way you are. You realize your inherent value as a human being. That new belief changes your perception of the childhood traumas you have been holding onto and you are finally able to release the anger, guilt, shame, and anxiety. You no longer live in a space of fear—afraid of not being loved or not being “good enough.” You are good enough. Consequently, you shift out of the sympathetic nervous system and chronic fight-or-flight and into the parasympathetic nervous system state of rest and repair where disease dissolves because you have tamed your childhood tigers.

Loving and accepting yourself can be challenging. One helpful tool is mirror work. Stand in front of a mirror, look deep into your eyes and say out loud, “I love you ___ (insert your name) and I accept you exactly the way you are.”

For most of us, the mirror has become our enemy. Hence, we criticize ourselves each time we see our reflection. The mirror reveals what we are most afraid of by reflecting back to us how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about life. However, if you allow it, the mirror can show you which issues to address in order to set yourself free. It can be a key to developing a deep, healing relationship with yourself in which you no longer chase the moving carrot in search of external validation and you no longer need to run from your childhood traumas. Instead, you will finally reach a state of joy and gratitude that you can tap into at any moment, and that nobody can take from you.

Try mirror work for 30 days. You may not initially believe the words you are saying. But, one day, instead of criticizing yourself, you will wake up, stand in front of the mirror, and feel excited to meet your new best friend.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease, and author of “Beyond Labels: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time.”  She holds a doctorate in nutrition from the University of California–Davis.  She is a master herbalist, Gluten Free Society certified practitioner, and homeschool mom of three.

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