We now know a lot about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on future mental health and physical health. People react differently to stressors of all types, and early life experiences can play a critical role in people’s physiologic “set-up” to cope with stress later in life.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study found that people who were exposed to childhood abuse or household dysfunction had increased risk of developing physical health issues such as ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease (Filetti et al). Since those early studies on ACES were done, we have accumulated vast amounts of data linking early childhood adversity and trauma to the later development of illnesses that affect mental health, self-directed violence, and addiction (Hughes et al. 2017). Although the literature supports that trauma, including adverse childhood experiences, result in many physiologic and mental illnesses later in life, there is a much smaller literature on the role these factors play in the later development of neurological diseases in people. A recent Swedish study looked at childhood adversity and a possible link between trauma and subsequent development of some neuro-inflammatory diseases, specifically multiple sclerosis (MS) in women.
The researchers used data obtained from a nationwide, prospective cohort study involving women in the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child cohort study. This study took place from 1999 to 2008 and involved women who self-reported emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse via questionnaires. Of the women who participated, 14,477 women self-reported experiencing childhood abuse, while 63,520 were not exposed to this impact. Three hundred women developed MS during the follow-up period (mean follow-up of 13 years later) with 71 of these (24%) reported a history of childhood abuse, compared with 14,406 of 77,697 (19%) women that did not develop MS. Sexual abuse and emotional abuse in childhood were both associated with an increased risk of developing MS and the risk of MS was further increased if exposed to two or all three abuse categories.1
The authors concluded that childhood sexual and emotional abuse were associated with an increased risk of developing MS, and that this happened in a dose response manner, meaning that the greater the number of abuse categories the woman was exposed to, the greater the risk. The investigators also stated that further studies are needed to identify underlying mechanisms, because from an integrative medicine perspective, there are undoubtedly many underlying mechanisms in the development of a complex illness like MS. It’s also important to note that early adversity increases your risk for many illnesses but not every individual who has experienced abuse will go on to have an illness like MS. It’s important to look into the root cause mechanisms that appear to be factors in disease initiation.
In this particular study, the childhood trauma these patients endured was marked, but the effects of carrying the burden of these experiences clearly extended into adulthood and perhaps laid the groundwork for the ultimate development of a disease that has inflammation as well as other factors at its core. You know how often we’ve discussed the role of inflammation in all diseases, particularly neurological autoimmune conditions, and there are likely other contributors as well.
While, as noted above, these researchers do call for additional studies to look more closely at the impact of childhood and adolescent adversity, there are things we can do each day to mitigate or minimize the impact of trauma upon our nervous system and brain and address these trauma-related issues. Certainly, access to appropriate psychological support is critical, and there are many contemporary types of psychotherapy which are gentle and accessible to you. Trauma release therapies like Brainspotting, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR), and Somatic Experiencing (SE) are just several of the evidence-based modalities that can help you work with body memories and those held in your brain. We can also improve other root causes of illness by decreasing our inflammation, optimizing our immune system, improving our digestion and gut health through tools such as mindfulness practices, breathwork and meditation, and improving the tone of the vagus nerve. In fact, in a meta-analysis on the effects mindfulness-based interventions on well-being of people with MS, researchers found that MBI’s such as meditation practices, group exercises, and “mindfulness of movement” programs can reduce stress, improve depression and anxiety, and lessen fatigue in those with MS (Simson R et al., 2020, Carletto, S et al., 2020). Exercising regularly, following nutritional supplement protocols, and trying to minimize our exposure to environmental toxins can all help lower our risk for developing a disease such as MS.
Co-authors, Suzanne K. Gazda, MD and Ilene N. Rusk, PhD
You can read more about trauma in our blog library including:
Be sure to try the “Search” feature on every page to identify numerous articles relevant to inflammation and other applicable topics. As always, don’t hesitate to talk to your physician about concerns regarding traumatic incidents that may have occurred in your or a loved one’s life – getting the support you need could be key to your general as well as your neurological wellbeing. And please let us know if we can help or answer any questions!
References and additional reading:
1 Eid K, Torkildsen Ø, Aarseth J, et al. Association of adverse childhood experiences with the development of multiple sclerosis. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 2022 93:645-650. https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/93/6/645
Childhood trauma and multiple sclerosis.