When you or someone you know has a history of trauma, it’s important to know how that trauma will play out in years to come. Inflammation in the brain and body play a big role in the long-term effects of stress and trauma, especially when it comes to trauma experienced during childhood.
Our brains and bodies are wired to respond to and survive stress and trauma (stress that becomes overwhelming) through a pre-set stress response pathway.
Whether it’s stress you’re going through right now, or whether it’s traumatic experiences that left its effects on your body, our brains and bodies respond in the same predictable way to survive.
These are such subconscious responses wired into our biology that we aren’t often aware of the stress, trauma, or its lingering effects on us.
In the big picture, the main ways in which stress and trauma affect our biology in the long run is through changes to our DNA, the stress response, and our nervous and immune systems.
While there are exceptions, in general, this results in an earlier death, but also a poorer quality of life due to health issues!
In this blog we’re going to narrow in on the immune system. Let’s take a look at how and where inflammation shows up in one’s brain and body after a history of stress and trauma, especially when that stress and trauma are felt during an individual’s childhood.
Early Life Stress and Inflammation
An article titled, “Tough Childhood Undermines Adult Health” (2009) written in MedPage Today discusses how psychological and social difficulties in childhood increase the risk for mental and physical disorders, as well as puts them at higher risk for age-related diseases as an adult. Age-related diseases are things like high blood pressure, heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, and dementia.
Not only were maltreated children shown to have an increased risk for general inflammation in their bodies as an adult, but also just by the age of 32, tough childhoods were independently associated with 32% of cases with depression, 13% cases of elevated immune system inflammation levels, and 32% of cases with clustered metabolic factors, meaning being overweight, pre-diabetes, high total cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
Another study from Europe shows that tough childhoods make our bodies age faster at the cellular level and increases inflammation levels by the time we reach adult age (Nettle).
Last week we talked about those with early life stress have an exaggerated inflammatory response in the body and is a key link to why early life stress leads to adult autoimmune diseases, cancer, and all other immune-system and inflammation related conditions.
How do you know if you have inflammation? It’s hard to know, because it doesn’t present itself as inflammation! It presents as weight problems, energy problems, mood, and focus problems, and then in the later stages as actual syndromes and diseases including pain, fertility problems, fatigue, autoimmune conditions, and cancer.
One easy way to know if you have inflammation is to look at your health. Look at the quality of your physical and mental health. Do you struggle with your weight? Have you been told you have high cholesterol or that your doctor is concerned about your blood pressure?
You can also know that you have inflammation by doing lab tests and looking into the details of your health.
Let’s look at how and where inflammation can show up in the brain and body.
Inflammation in the Brain
Yes, there can be inflammation in the brain!
From last week’s blog on the connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences and adult health, early life stress forces our DNA to change that causes an exaggerated inflammatory response.
Increased inflammation in the brain is apart of that. A study published in January 2017 showed that adult rats, who as children, were separated from their mothers for a few hours every day showed exaggerated inflammation in the brain as adults did after being given anesthesia.
Inflammation in the brain is associated with many mood problems, including the most common ones in the Western World: anxiety and depression.
Antidepressants are one of the more commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. Yet, many don’t respond to antidepressants. Inflammation may be the clue, because we’re targeting the wrong problem!
Depression and inflammation go hand in hand. A great summary of these key studies can be found here.
In short, those with childhood depression have been shown to have increased total body inflammation (as measured by high C-Reactive Protein levels) in adulthood. This makes sense with what we’ve been talking about with tough childhoods that cause a pro-inflammatory state by adulthood.
This became a cycle though, because the higher inflammation was associated with how many episodes of depression a person would experience over their life!
Another study in Toronto showed that adults with depression, have now been found to have inflammation in their brain, with the most severe depression showing the greatest amount of inflammation (up by 30%!).
Inflammation is a driver of depression!
While depression has received more attention over the years in terms of our understanding of its link with inflammation in the brain, anxiety has now come on the radar for psychiatry.
They’re concerned about what they’re calling “alarming increase in anxiety disorder patients.”
In a key medical article called “Inflammation in Anxiety,” Salim talks about the connection between inflammation and anxiety. They go one step further and propose an “Oxidative Stress Theory.”
Oxidative stress is what you get from inflammation and the damage it does to the tissues on the cell level. They’re proposing that this stress from inflammation is because of “sensor of distress.”
A sensor of distress means that the body and brain sense danger and threat! Part of the response to danger and threat is inflammation in the brain which feeds anxiety disorders.
Brain Autoimmune State
Finally, our exaggerated inflammatory responses in our bodies can lead to not only general stress and aging on our brain cells, but also cause our immune system to specifically attack our brain cells.
The first sign of this are things like “brain fog,” fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Mood and personality disorders are likely a part of this, both as a result and as a contributing cause.
ADD (hyperactivity), Autism, dementia, and schizophrenia have all now been linked to brain inflammation as well, though more information is needed to understand exactly how they’re associated.
Big Take Away Points
It’s a little scary to think of there being inflammation in your brain!
Especially if you or your child has a history of early life stress and has this propensity towards inflammation, your brain health needs to be a priority even if these symptoms or conditions haven’t developed yet. By the time symptoms develop, the inflammation has been going on for a long time and it will take longer to fix than to just prevent!
Maybe you’re not sure where to start? It does make it harder without being able to see the inflammation in the brain.
Start with the really big toxic stuff to the brain: drugs, alcohol, and smoking. These have been shown to have direct toxic effects on the brain and have shown to cause inflammation in the brain.
As a side note, I think it’s interesting that the only “drug” that has been shown to reduce cravings while recovering from methamphetamine use is a supplement N-Acetyl-Cysteine, which decreases the brain inflammation associated with the drug use.
After that, stress and diet are the next major causes of brain inflammation.
High sugar diets, especially things like soda drinks, candy, processed foods with high fructose corn syrup are very toxic to the brain. Poor diets cause inflammation in the gut and gut inflammation is closely tied to brain inflammation.
Stress causes inflammation in the brain. If it wasn’t enough to have these other effects of stress on our body, chronic stress has now been shown to directly cause inflammation in the brain.
One of the best reads on this topic is “Why Isn’t My Brain Working,” by Dr. Datis Kharrazian. I highly recommend it!
Inflammation in Body
While there are diseases that people with histories of trauma are more at risk for, there is however, a more general state of inflammation in the body. This can be measured by both symptoms and labs.
For example, an association between childhood maltreatment and high levels of the blood markers of C-Reactive Protein, White Blood Cell count, and Fibrinogen. This was found in a 2007 study as part of the larger Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
Adult Diseases Associated With Adverse Childhood Events
This general state of inflammation is likely the mediating factor between childhood trauma and poor health in an adult.
ACE Diseases Related to Inflammation:
- Heart Disease, including Heart Attacks
- High Blood Pressure
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Chronic Lung Disease (Emphysema)
- Liver Disease
- Thyroid Disease
- Chronic Fatigue
- Chronic Pain, Especially Chronic Back Pain
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- General Abdominal Pain
- Mood Disorders
- Substance Use
Autoimmune diseases are a result of an imbalance in the immune system. From everything we know, it isn’t surprising that autoimmune conditions are closely linked to tough childhoods!
Autoimmune conditions can be several different things. There are many different diseases that we thought we understood well that we are now beginning to see them in a new light and as a part of the autoimmune conditions.
Some of the big autoimmune diseases are Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Multiple Sclerosis. However, Alzheimer’s, Adult-onset Diabetes, and Thyroid Disease are now understood to be part of that list as well.
Autoimmune disease is where your immune cells, normally supposed to protect you by attacking and killing threats like viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells, begin to see your own healthy tissue as a threat.
When looking at it from the psychological perspective of early life stress and attachment disorder, it’s interesting how it matches with what is going on in the biology of autoimmune conditions! It’s the perception that I am inherently bad, hate myself, and so will attack and kill myself. It matches the self-sabotaging psychology of attachment and early childhood trauma issues in that it attacks the healthy tissue, self-sabotaging any efforts to actually feel well and succeed in health and in life.
On a personal note, I had no idea that I had any autoimmune process going on in my body until my doctor ran a ton of lab tests when I was struggling at the worst of the fatigue back in 2014. One of my autoimmune markers came back very high, yet I had no classic symptoms.
She sent me to Rheumatology, where they told me that yes, it was very high, but there was nothing that could be done about it and to come back if I developed joint swelling or pain or got a butterfly rash on my face and then they would diagnose me with Lupus.
I was also seeing a Developmental Vision team at that time, and would make good progress with the exercises, but every few weeks I would perform poorly on their tests and usually in a different way each time. Their head doctor came in and asked me if I had Multiple Sclerosis, because this was the same type of finding they see in people with Multiple Sclerosis (an autoimmune condition that attacks the nervous system in random places).
This was enough of a wake up call for me that I had a major inflammation imbalance in my body and brain and needed to find out what I could do.
Since then, decreasing the inflammation in my brain and body has been a big focus of my life, and I have made major changes in my life, work, and diet in order to reduce stress, find out which foods were causing my immune system to have an exaggerated response to, and optimize my natural detoxification systems.
I now track my autoimmune markers as well, and have become encouraged as I see them come down in response to changes I do.
If you’re concerned about an imbalance in your immune system, have indications that there is inflammation in your brain or body, or want to prevent it, the foods you eat make a huge difference. There are a lot of books and diets out there, and the best place to start for autoimmune conditions is “The Wahls Protocol” by Terry Wahls, MD.
Dr. Terry Wahls also was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis to the point where she was in a wheelchair, and through changing her diet to a strong anti-inflammatory one, she is now walking and living life well!
You can find her book on Amazon here.
Finally, if you are interested in taking an in-depth look at your health, these are the labs that I would recommend you ask your doctor to order for you.
If any of them are off, ask questions and then track your levels as you make changes to your lifestyle and diet to make sure what you’re doing really is making a difference.
- Hemoglobin A1c
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP- should be less than 3 mg/L)
- ESR (Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate)
- Lipid Panel
- Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
- Thyroid Hormones: TSH, Free T4, T3
- Urinalysis (looking for protein or blood in the urine)
- Vit D
- Iron panel with Ferritin
Autoimmune markers: dsDNA, ANA
Other markers: weight, BMI, blood pressure
There’s so much on the topic to share, and it’s been hard for me to hold back on all other interesting facts and helpful resources I want to share!
What I hope to accomplish is to open your eyes to see what’s going on in your biology or in your child’s biology as a result of trauma and attachment issues.
To Hope and Healing!
Danese A, Pariante C, Caspi A, Taylor A, Poulton R. Childhood Maltreatment Predicts Adult Inflammation in a Life-Course Study. PNAS. Jan 23 2007; 104(4): 1319-1324
Dube SR, Fairweather D, Pearson WS, Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Croft JB. Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2009;71(2):243-250
Nettle D, Andrews C, Reichert S, Bedford T, Kolenda C, Parker C, Martin-Ruiz C, Monaghan P, Bateson M. Early-Life Adversity Accelerates Cellular Aging and Affects Adult Inflammation: Experimental Evidence From the European Starling. Scientific Reports, Jan 2017;7 (40794).