A happy childhood leads to a healthy adult life. This is what scientists found when they examined the effects of childhood adversities to DNA. They found that the tiny protective caps of our chromosomes, which are called telomeres, shorten prematurely when kids consistently experience traumatic events. Scientists have found that long telomeres are associated with health and vitality, while short ones are usually found in seniors or chronically sick people. Telomeres somehow record the accumulative impact of different lifestyle factors in our health.
Although the way they do that is not clear yet, one thing is certain: They are sensitive to oxidative stress. It is well known that psychological pressure exposes our cells to dangerous free radicals. This could be a reason why telomeres become prematurely short. Research shows that adults who had difficult childhood years have consistently shorter telomeres and are at higher risk of chronic and debilitating disease early in life.
Trauma and Brain Biology
Psychiatric research also indicates that childhood maltreatment affects brain structure and in fact, the more serious the level of abuse, the more obvious neurobiological abnormalities are detected, especially in susceptible subjects.
More studies have found that children who experienced or even observed domestic violence not only experience more often depression, anxiety and reduced cognitive abilities, but also have detectable structural differences in the part of the brain that processes visual stimuli. This may potentially impact brain functions, such as figure recognition, object naming and conscious perception of visual movement, all modalities that are controlled by the affected brain structure.
Happiness “Programs” Baby DNA for Long-Term Health
A happy pregnancy is important for having a healthy baby, not just during infancy, but as an adult as well. It turns out that the emotions of pregnant women can affect greatly the telomere length of their unborn babies.
Doctors from the University of California have found the baby´s DNA perceives and records the hormone changes that an expectant mother experiences after a negative event. These changes are recorded in the telomere length. According to the specific study, the adult children of women who went through an intensely negative experience during pregnancy had shorter telomeres, in comparison with adults whose mother had a calm and happy pregnancy.
In other words, the children of mothers with unhappy pregnancies are more susceptible to disease and health problems otherwise common in old age.
This fascinating result shows that in some cases, adult health or disease can be “programmed” before birth. If unhappy pregnancies make the telomeres of babies and adults prematurely short, a happy pregnancy should give a health head start to children, at least from a genetic point of view. Having a relaxed and happy pregnancy is probably one of the best, long-term investments you can offer to your baby.
Prenatal stress, telomere biology, and fetal programming of health and disease risk. Science Signaling. Oct 2012; 5(248):pt12.
Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. Aug 2011; 108(33):E513-8.
Asok et al. 2013. Parental responsiveness moderates the association between early-life stress and reduced telomere length.Dev Psychopathol. 25(3):577-85.
Tomoda et al. 2012. Reduced visual cortex gray matter volume and thickness in young adults who witnessed domestic violence during childhood. PLoS One. 7(12):e52528.
Kananen et al., 2010. Childhood adversities are associated with shorter telomere length at adult age both in individuals with an anxiety disorder and controls. PLoS One. 5(5):e10826.
Eleni Roumeliotou is a geneticist and clinical nutritionist specializing in fertility and perinatal nutrition and lifestyle. She is the founder ofPrimal Baby, a health sanctuary for all things fertility and pregnancy. Eleni passionately helps women, who are trying to conceive or are already expecting a baby, to optimize their diet and lifestyle in order to conceive naturally and have the healthiest baby possible. Her passion is to empower women to take control of their fertility and their baby´s health, safeguarding the wellbeing of the next generation, one baby at a time. You can read all of Eleni´s Mother Earth News articleshere.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.