Childhood Stress Increases Vulnerability to Disease

Family separation is detrimental, and its effects will remain for generations.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0
Source: Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0

Traumas or stress early in life can disrupt normal development. These impairments weaken all aspects of growth—physical, psychological and social. Alarmingly, stress early in life can increase the child’s vulnerability to disease throughout their entire life. History is replete of horrific incidents that happened to children. These unfortunate events allowed researchers to quantify the increase in disease prevalence in this population.

Recently, the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance policy”. This resulted in undocumented children facing horrific conditions such as separation from their parents and abuse on all levels. As a result, many of these children are experiencing panic attacks, bed-wetting, anxiety and other expected problems. Sadly, many of these children will not be reunited with their parents.

Separation from a parent is a serious offense to normal development. The fetus remains physically attached to its mother via the umbilical cord. If the umbilical cord is severed, the embryo cannot get its nutrition and will die. As it gains abilities and is released into the world, the physical attachment morphs into a psychological one. In the same vain, if the psychological cord is compromised, the child’s soul can be deprived of essential psychological nutrition. For example, if a child loses a parent to death, their risk of major depression increases by 50 percent for the rest of their lifetime.

Separation from one’s safe heaven at an early age teaches the child an unforgettable emotional lesson: “this world cannot be trusted,” “bad things will keep happening to you and you will just watch helplessly and hopelessly”.

Maternal deprivation is the worst punishment any child can get. In studies where infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers, they grew up to have elevated stress hormones (according to research ethics practiced in the United States, you cannot do such experiments in human beings and the researcher has to go through an extensive process to justify maternal separation experiments in animals).

Similar results have been reported in children who have been abused or separated from their families: they have elevated stress hormones. That's not all. The most advanced part of their brains—the frontal cortex that enables decision making, emotion regulation, and disables impulsiveness—shrinks.

This elevation in stress hormones is far from benign. The term “stress dwarfism”, A.K.A. “psychological dwarfism” points to how lethal stress can be during these impressionable years. Children suffering from psychological dwarfism do not grow to their expected heights and mental age lags way behind their chronological age. In other words, these traumatized or maternally deprived children stop growing mentally and physically.

Why does severe stress in childhood stagnate growth?

The hypothalamus controls the release of growth hormone. It does that by carefully balancing the release of two hormones: an excitatory and an inhibitory one. Under stress, the hypothalamus becomes biased towards the inhibitory one, so the child does not grow. In stress dwarfed children, the excessive circulating stress hormones (cortisol) diminishes growth hormone release and the body’s response to it.

These children also have gastrointestinal problems. Their digestive system does not absorb nutrients from their intestines. This also leads to numerous growth problems. They also have a lifetime increased risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

The consequences of childhood stress for vulnerabilities during adulthood are numerous: From brain abnormalities to full blown disease. ACE score (Adverse childhood experiences) enumerates the number of childhood adverse experiences and correlates the score to various risks. A higher ACE score increases the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, asthma, depression, anxiety and suicide. This score is related to seven out of the ten leading causes of death! Socially, the score is related to increased criminal record, teen pregnancy and more sick days at work. It seems like the sun continues to refuse to shine in their backyards decade after decade! Unless interventions take place.

This abysmal story does not end with this generation. Each trauma leaves its fingerprint on the child’s DNA. The earlier the adverse event happens, the more severe and prolonged its impact on the child’s gene expression.  Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression, and these epigenetic changes are carried over to subsequent generations. So, each trauma experienced as a result of this “parentectomy” will leave an epigenetic fingerprint on these helpless children’s DNA, and their children and their children.

Enforced family separations are mutilating the cord that links these kids to a reasonable chance at adulthood. The world imprinted in their minds is a vacuous world devoid of emotions, a world where nobody can be trusted, and where they don’t have control over what happens to them. This political maneuver will cost all Americans. What will become of the children who have unwillingly gone under parentectomy? Well, we have a pretty good guess given decades of research on the subject.