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Can Trauma Change Your DNA? The Surprising Science Behind How Stress Impacts Your Genes

a woman and child picking apples
Maternal Health Outcomes Related to Stress

Once, I attended a lecture that, to this day, still haunts me. The topic was the genetic effects of trauma. The research suggested that extreme exposure to stress or trauma can lead to changes in your DNA and can be passed to the next generation.

The example used was the trauma experienced by Holocaust victims. Studies have shown that Holocaust survivors and their children could have differences in how their genes express, specifically concerning stress and anxiety.

This implies stress and anxiety can trigger genetic mutations.

What immediately came to my mind was a scene from X-Men. The video below shows a traumatic stressor triggering a genetic mutation. A boy is separated from his parents in a prison camp, and his pain (or distress) channels into manipulating a metal gate.

The origin of Magneto’s powers stem from a traumatic stress event.

This example is fictional and extreme; I don’t believe people will get mutant superpowers because of stress. However, horrific human events have happened throughout history. And unfortunately, the Holocaust is not the only example of extreme trauma and suffering people have experienced. In this country, my skin carries a history of environmental, social, and psychological traumas. It makes you wonder how many people are walking around wholly unconscious of the trauma-induced genetic mutations they carry.

The Problem

Ongoing research explores the potential role of trauma-induced genetic mutations in the elevated maternal mortality rate experienced by Black women in the United States.

Studies have found that Black women are more likely to experience pregnancy-related complications and have a higher risk of maternal mortality than women of other racial and ethnic groups. While the causes of these disparities are complex, some researchers have suggested that trauma, including the impact of structural racism and discrimination, may contribute to poor health outcomes.

One proposed mechanism for this connection is through the impact of stress on maternal health. Chronic stress can lead to dysregulation in the body, resulting in inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and other physiological changes that may increase the risk of pregnancy-related complications.

My grandmother always told me, “Stress will kill you faster than any disease.”

It turns out she was right. Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to significant mental and physical health problems if I consider what my ancestors survived: slavery, Jim Crow South, microaggressions, financial or marital anxiety, children, life changes, and grief. The list goes on, but you get it, a lifetime of stress passed from one person to the next.

It made me wonder, what are the long-term, compounded effects of generational trauma moving through a family? What if chronic diseases are forms of stress in different expressions? Is there any wonder why high blood pressure, heart disease, and allergen cases are rising?

The Solution

Linda Conroy, a bioregional herbalist, says cultivating a nourishing diet, nourishing community, and nourishing relationships with ourselves, each other, and our home, the earth, is a life well-lived.

A life well lived, an exciting concept. It was hard for me to envision what that meant. We hear conversations about trauma's psychological effects every day, but I want to understand this more holistically. What's happening in your body? What's happening in the community? How far does this ripple extend?

The solution starts with redefining nourishment. We know that food is a rich source of nourishment, but we are tackling more than just digestion. We must reflect on where we source our food. I support local production with a trusted source, creating new connections and relationships, not only for nourishing the body, but nourishing the community and spirit. Returning to community life fosters our relationships; everyone and everything needs nourishment.

Health can no longer be defined as a fixed state, ignoring the reality that life is anything but fixed. Change is constant. I am advocating for a change in our approach to health, humans are imperfect, and our options need to recognize and encompass all faculties of humanity.

Isla Burgess says, “health is reflected in our ability to be flexible, adaptable and resilient.”

A powerful way to nourish the individual is to redefine health, no longer using a standard size to meet all. There are many things the world says we should be, but people come in all shapes and sizes. It is unreasonable to believe and encourage everyone to look and perform the same. Let’s start from a place of love and compassion for ourselves and each other, and remember that restoring health will not be a one size all approach.

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” -Hippocrates


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