A 2004 study found that early life influences may have a more potent impact on adult behavior than previously thought. The study compared a neglectful environment to a nurturing environment. Nurture took a commanding lead in the nature-vs-nurture debate!
It turns out life experiences and environment, especially during early years, can turn genes on or off. Among other things, gene expression can tell a cell to become a brain cell or a bone cell.
The study of what influences a gene’s expression is called epigenetics. More and more research is piling up suggesting our mood, emotions, past influences, and environment can all change how our genes affect a cell’s function!
Stress + Gene Expression
Methylation is when a methyl group molecule attaches to a gene and influences behavior of a cell. In this groundbreaking research, effects of early life stress were evaluated by measuring how the stress-regulating gene was methylated when rodents were licked and nuzzled.
The group with more nurturing, nuzzling, and licking had less stress-regulating genes methylated than the group who got less affection. The group that received less nurturing reacted to stress badly as adults and were less likely to care for their young. Unfortunately, they also passed this epigenetic effect on to the next generation.1
Studies have now linked methylation issues to stress, traumatic fetal stress, poor diet, aging, weight, and much more.3
A recent study found a similar effect on humans, making us all rethink the importance of the kind of care children receive. In this study, one group of adolescents had been abused and neglected, while the other had not. As predicted, the mistreated group had more methylated genes.2 This translated to higher rates of anxiety and depression and less tolerance of stress as adults.
They went on to make a socioeconomic correlation: the less well-off the families were financially, the higher the likelihood of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. 20% of the population grows up in poverty—this study suggests that they are at greater risk for neglect and abuse, which can adversely affect adult behavior and behavior of the following generation.
While logic says that mistreated kids tend to lead a more troubled life, it was previously unknown that the trouble went all the way to a genetic level.
Support Healthy Methylation
Healthy methylation is essential for an overwhelming number of processes in the human body. It is critical for DNA repair and detox. It is happening billions of times each second. If healthy methlation is disturbed through stress, emotional trauma at a young age, environmental toxicity, poor diet, and poor digestion, almost every system in the body can be affected. While less than 20% of the population has genetic variances that make it difficult to methylate, the most recent research suggests that diet and a healthy lifestyle can play a leading role in healthy methylation.3-5
For starters, a diet of healthy leafy green vegetables, loaded with vitamin B12 and folate (a word that comes from foliage), is critical to restore healthy methylation. As previously mentioned, there are many factors that can alter methylation and the delivery of B12 and folate that should be evaluated first, as they are directly linked to mental and emotional health.
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Addressing digestive concerns like food hypersensitivities, malabsorption, healthy elimination, gas, bloat, and healthy stomach acid production are also important to unravel the mental, emotional, and physical impact of poor nurturing as an infant or child.
Ayurvedic psychology is primarily aimed at unraveling protective patterning from trauma that may be linked to digestive, mental-emotional, inadequate detoxification, and other methylation health concerns.
Ayurveda + Genetic Healing
In Ayurveda, the care a child receives early on determines the ease with which they handle stress and emotions later in life, and also how inclined they will be to live a spiritual and fulfilling life. I wrote my book Perfect Health for Kids to offer parents a guide to not only keep their kids from getting sick, but also to ensure their emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Luckily, if you did have adverse childhood experiences, you and your children are not doomed. There are many Ayurvedic strategies that are aimed to affect the body on the most subtle epigenetic levels. Check out my Emotional Health section to get some ideas.