Link between childhood trauma and adult illness discussed in new book
Feb. 15, 2018
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris discusses her book, “The Deepest Well,” which explores how toxic stress created by childhood trauma leads to physical illnesses in adult life.
“Toxic stress are the long term changes that happen to the brain and body when kids are exposed to high doses of adversity,” Burke Harris says. “It’s the normal reaction that’s supposed to save our life from a mortal threat. When it’s activated too often it can change the structure and function of children’s developing brains, their hormonal system, their immune system, even the way DNA is read and transcribed.”
In her book, Burke Harris talks about how she met a 7-year-old patient named Diego over 10 years ago. He was initially referred to her because he was displaying symptoms of ADHD. He had asthma and suffered from eczema. He was small for his age, about the size of a 4-year-old. Burke Harris found out he had stopped growing after being sexually assaulted.
“When I spoke with the endocrinologist, the hormone specialist, what she told me was that this was not unprecedented,” Burke Harris says. “The impact of traumas on children’s developing brains and bodies are much more significant than many of us previously thought.”
Childhood trauma has now been linked to higher risks for asthma, infections, behavioral problems and diabetes. Burke Harris says for children who are exposed to four or more adversities, they are much more likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lung disease.
What can Diego do to help himself when he becomes an adult? “The Deepest Well” focuses on the many things one can do to reverse or prevent the effects of childhood trauma from happening. Burke Harris says all the research has shown that safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments are healing for both kids and adults. A blend of exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and good mental health has also been shown to have a positive effect.
“One of the most important things we can do is provide the support in a manner that we call two generation – supporting the caregiver and supporting the child,” Burke Harris says. “When we see a child with high levels of adversity, most often their parent had high levels of childhood adversity.”
Evidence-based intervention has shown to prevent the pattern of childhood adversity from being passed down, Burke Harris says of her experience. She says, in her practice, she has seen the power of early intervention and the power of detection.
The knowledge has transformed Burke Harris’s practice. Every child that comes into her practice is screened for adverse childhood experiences. At the moment, four percent of pediatricians are doing the same. Burke Harris hopes to see every pediatrician adopt screening into their offices.