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In a 2004 study, researchers found that early life influences may have a more potent impact on adult behavior than was previously thought. The study compared a neglectful environment to a nurturing environment. As you will discover from this study, nurture took a commanding lead in the nature versus nurture debate!
As it turns out, life experiences and environment, especially during the early years, can turn off or on a gene inside of a cell. Among other things, this gene expression can tell the cell to become a brain cell or a bone cell. The study of what influences a gene’s expression is called epigenetics. The exciting thing about this is that more and more research is piling up that suggests our mood, emotions, past influences and environment can all change how our genes affect a cell’s function!
In this groundbreaking research, the effects of both early life stress versus nurturing were evaluated by measuring how the stress-regulating gene was methylated when rodents were licked and nuzzled. Methylation is when a methyl group molecule attaches to a gene and influences the behavior of a cell. The group that had more nurturing, nuzzling and licking had less stress-regulating genes methylated than the group who got less affection. What was interesting was that 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 affect onto the next generation. (1)
A recent study has found a similar effect on humans; making us all re-think the importance of the kind of care children receive. In this study, they looked at two groups of adolescents. One group had been abused and neglected, but the other was not. As predicted, the group that was mistreated had more methylated genes. (2) This translated into a higher rate 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. This study suggests that the 20% of the population that grows up in poverty are at greater risk for neglect and abuse, and that can adversely affect their behavior as adults, as parents, and the behavior of their children.
While logic says that kids who are mistreated tend to lead a more troubled life, it was previously unknown that the trouble went all the way to a genetic level.
In Ayurveda, the care a child receives early on determines the ease in which they handle stress and their emotions later in life, and also how inclined they will be to live a spiritual and fulfilling life. I actually wrote my book, Perfect Health for Kids, to offer parents a guide to not only how to keep their kids from getting sick, but to also ensure their emotional and spiritual well-being.