The Center for Disease Control (CDC) describes epigenetics as the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.[1]  While we may have inherited certain DNA from our biological parents, the choices we make in our lives in response to these genetics can alter the way our body reads a DNA sequence.  Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence.

The CDC states that “while genetic changes can alter which protein is made, epigenetic changes affect gene expression to turn genes “on” and “off.” Since your environment and behaviours, such as diet and exercise, can result in epigenetic changes, it is easy to see the connection between your genes and your behaviours and environment.”[2]  Trauma and adverse childhood experiences can have similar effects, with documented studies showing altered DNA patterns in lab rats exposed to traumatic experiences.

In the Science Magazine article: Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show[3], Andrew Curry chronicles stories of descendants of post-war veterans, Holocaust survivors and children from Pakistani orphanages, alongside studies of noted biologist Michael Skinner at Washington State University.  Curry states the hypothesis that an individual’s experience might alter the cells and behaviour of their children and grandchildren has become widely accepted. And that, in animals, exposure to stress, cold, or high-fat diets has been shown to trigger metabolic changes in later generations.  Similarly, Skinner’s research suggests changes to the epigenome, a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed can be passed down through multiple generations.[4]

This knowledge is powerful. It provides the evidence needed to study the effects of trauma on children, families and future generations. If trauma can trigger epigenetic changes in people and their offspring, the alterations could serve as biomarkers to identify individuals at greater risk for mental illness or other health problems—and as targets for interventions that might reverse that legacy.

If our experiences can have consequences that resound to our children and our children’s children, that’s a strong case against everything that causes trauma—from substance abuse to family disruption in any form, to policies that reinforce systemic poverty and racism.

Science is evolving, but it’s pretty clear. Our actions and the actions of our forbearers have consequences beyond ourselves.

What does this mean, moving forward?

The more we understand about ourselves, the better off we will be. And the better off our children will be.  If we are able to identify and comprehend the patterns we inherited by our parents and their parents, the more conscious and adaptable we will be to create new, (potentially) healthier lifestyle choices.

For example, when I was in graduate school, I realized that I had a propensity toward depression. When not surrounded by the excitement of other people to bring me outside of myself, I would stay stuck in my head, ruminating over the past, present and future.

In therapy, I began to realize that my dad had also suffered from chronic lifelong low-grade depression. He grew up in a violent family where he often needed to personally intervene as his father regularly beat and physically abused his mom.   Rather than stifle his angst as my dad grew up, he poured himself into sports and competitive athletics. The first chance he got, he left home and joined the military where he continued to pursue competitive baseball.

When I started working in healthcare, I  began to see the physical manifestations of pent up anger and depression in cardiac patients.  Their stories hit close to home, as I looked back over my father’s family of origin and noted a long line of cardiac-related problems and premature death. My dad’s felt sense of needing to be physically active had an evolutionary buffering effect on his health and mine. At the age of 80, he is the sole survivor left in his family of origin. Without question, staying physically active has prolonged his life.  And his example has impacted mine.

By my dad’s unintentional role modelling, I learned the value of “getting out of my head and into my body” at a very young age.  I absorbed and intuited the importance of physical movement for physical and psychological healing.

Two kids, a marriage and a traumatic accident later, I continue to utilize this important life lesson in many ways.  Through a difficult pandemic, I’ve noticed the temptation of my daughter to isolate in her bedroom with her phone. I’ve witnessed the mood swings with the isolation, and the surliness that accompanies a life without movement.  Within myself, I notice the same kind of inertia when I don’t get up and move, and when I stay stuck in my head.  We work hard to encourage one another to stay active–even when we don’t feel like it.

Our family mantra: “Get out of your head and into your body” has its roots in understanding my dad’s family of origin issues, but its continued application in my life and the life of my family has enduring epigenetic benefit.  Self-care, self-awareness and self-improvement are more than good ideas. They are essential in creating the best possible conditions for future generations.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm

[3] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how

[4] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how

 

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