What most people don’t realize is that traumatic events have a tendency to create proteins that gunk up our genes, and the offspring that comes from those genes are predetermined to have that same gunk causing mental and behavioral issues… even if that offspring never endured such trauma to induce these issues. I know I’ve spoken of childhood trauma in the past, but let’s take a moment to reflect on what we know about “generational curses” and traumatic periods of history which may have caused generations of today to have anxiety, depression, and so much more.
What is epigenetics?
According to the CDC (2022), epigenetics is the process of how the things we experience and are surrounded with can affect our genes in a way that could be modified in the future. Essentially, epigenetic changes do NOT change your DNA at all; however, they can be gunked up or slowed down from exposure to traumatic events. This process of ‘gunking up’ is called methylation which turns off the gene (or keeps it from working accurately). Sometimes, the genes that are affected are the genes that check our behaviors or cognitive functions which is how some people could be predisposed to depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.
When a methylated strand of DNA is copied into the next offspring, those genes that were gunked up get passed as non-working genes to the offspring. Now, this offspring could have the same mental illnesses genetically engrained due to the methylation from the parent, even if the child never experiences a traumatic event in their life. But, we will get to those details soon.
Methylation & Trauma: How does this link?
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis of the DNA strand is the central biological pathway which is where the body responds from stress (Jiang et al., 2019, p. 3). This axis is where the methylation occurs as previously mentioned. So when toxic stress occurs, over time, methylation builds up on this axis, blocking the processes of certain genes that are used to cope from these stressors, for example – the fight or flight response.
Now, how does it pass through generations?
As I said before, the methylation of the HPA axis is transmitted to the offspring directly from parent to child. This even applies to things that may happen to the mother with the fetus in utero and can happen in varying severities (Stenz et al., 2018). According to the studies by Stenz et al. (2018), they found that mutations frequently occur from environmental influences which can be anything from feeling unsafe in shelter, toxic relationships/friendships, being homeless, etc. However, these epigenetic changes can be reversed… generally by adding certain histones to the genes which reactivates their processes. “The greatest impact of ELS is thought to occur during the following formative periods: the prenatal, the early postnatal and the early adolescent periods” (Stenz et al., 2018, p. 669). This brings another point of how crucial these developmental stages are for children, and how stress can bring more problems if they are introduced as these ages. Stenz et al. (2018) reported that brain functions of future offspring will be affected by pre-conception stress of the mother, further providing more evidence of the importance in developmentally and biologically understanding that correcting environmental issues before bringing children into the world should be priority.
Ultimately, this is about understanding that taking care of our mental health should be the first priority before we begin any other journey in this life. Everybody, undiagnosed or diagnosed mentally ill, should utilize therapy or at least a life coach. The world is full of possibilities, and those possibilities are endless. Why not make sure we take the time to physically and mentally take care of our bodies and understand that sometimes it’s best to be in a better mental space before having a child. This is why the right to choose what women do with their bodies is heavily pertinent. It may seem selfish to some, but it’s foraging for a better future that we are after. We want to build for a stronger future first. We want to make sure our future generations are better equipped than we are for handling the issues we are facing today which, hopefully, they won’t have to face in the future. It’s time that we focus on mental health, in all aspects.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 18). What is epigenetics? CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm#:~:text=Epigenetics%20is%20the%20study%20of,body%20reads%20a%20DNA%20sequence.
Jiang, S., Postovit, L., Cattaneo, A., Binder, E. B., & Aitchison, K. J. (2019). Epigenetic modifications in stress response genes associated with childhood trauma. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00808
Stenz, L., Schecter, D. S., Serpa, S. R., & Paoloni-Giacobino, A. (2018). Intergenerational trauma transmission of DNA methylation signatures associated with early life stress. Current Genomics, 19(8), 665-675. https://doi.org/10.2174/1389202919666171229145656