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Epigenetics and Trauma

Written by Dr. Farhan Shahzad and Sarah Davies-Robertson

The word 'epigenetics' may be a new one for you, but the term has been around for quite some time, making traction in the last decade. Epigenetics is the study of how experience, thoughts, and words can modify our DNA. These changes can be passed on from one generation to the next. We can change the structure of our genes, and this can have lasting

consequences on both our physical and mental health.

The Biology

A genome is a double helix code that is uniquely you, unless, of course, you

have an identical twin. Added to this is another layer of complexity called the

epigenome. The epigenome sits in your cells with your genome and is the

instruction manual that decides which parts of your DNA are activated and

which genes are switched on or off. Every cell in your body contains its own

epigenome. This is impressive stuff because it is the epigenome that decides

the actions of a cell.

Your DNA stays consistent throughout your life, but the epigenomes are fluid.

They change as we grow (i.e. throughout adolescence), and the experiences we

have in life impact on them. Epigenetic changes affect our body, both positively

and negatively, and impact on the health of our bodies. Experiences, such as

trauma, can have an adverse impact on our cell health. But not only that, it can

also impact on our children and grandchildren’s development. This is the same

as the experiences of our grandparents and parents on our own lives.

In a study conducted by Professor Yehuda Bauer, the impact of traumatic

experiences on war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and the September 11th

attacks were considered. The study aimed to understand the impact this had

on the survivor’s children. Professor Yehuda found that children whose parents

had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) displayed PTSD and

depressive symptoms, too. The children also shared epigenetic markers with

their parents, meaning they were more reactive to stress.

The good news is that we can rewire and reverse these changes through our

personal experiences. We can also do this using powerful words, thinking

positively, seeking out joyful and enriching experiences, and keeping our focus

on the here and now. Our words are powerful and can influence health at a

cellular level. It is estimated that between 75 and 98% of mental and physical

health problems come from the mind.


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