Did Chronic Stress in Childhood Raise my Risk for Autoimmune Disease?

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 10.51.05 AMThe answer, in a word, is yes.

All along, nestled in my DNA, was a marker for autoimmune disease. Who knew. If no chronically stressful or physically traumatic events had occurred in my childhood and adult life, the disease may have gone un-triggered for my lifetime. It might have just laid low in my DNA forever. Instead, ongoing stress throughout childhood and a life-threatening childbirth in my thirties flipped the switch, and triggered my autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

It took about three years to land on a firm diagnosis, a typical, irritating, confusing, and very common story for others who’ve experienced the long and winding trail to figuring out they have an autoimmune disease. What’s more, my endocrinologist says that while he considers me as having Hashimoto’s, that I actually have only “half” the diagnosis because my thyroid gland is healthy but my autoimmune response is high (extremely high levels of antibodies specific to the thyroid gland). If my thyroid were damaged, I would have full Hashimoto’s.

I eat and live differently now, and will write about that at some point; in a nutshell, I now meditate and eat a gluten-free, plant-based diet. And oh! What that did for my energy levels! (I wrote about the 21 day cleanse that helped me get started, although when I did the cleanse, I didn’t yet know about my autoimmune disease.)

Was Your Childhood Lived Walking on Eggshells?

For those of us who grew up with chronic stress—whether waiting for the next scary outburst of anger, domestic argument, or upsetting reason to run to our rooms and blot out or fantasize-away the crazy reality of our household—we know that our most sensitive and important developmental stages were lived waiting for the other shoe to drop, chair to be thrown, or car tires pealed out of  the driveway and away from the house.

I wish that the fallout from less-than-nurturing childhoods started and ended with the emotional wounds we know so well — the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics, but the truth is there are health risks to understand, too.

Here’s what you need to know:

A chronically stressful childhood, and one that includes anything on the list below, is one that falls into the category of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and are known to raise one’s risk of disease in adult life.

Do You Know What Your ACE Score Is?

Often or very often in childhood, did…

- a parent or adult swear at you, insult, push, or humiliate you?
- your parents separate or divorce?
- a household member struggle with depression or was mentally ill?
- a household member go to prison?
- a parent or adult push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
- a parent or adult at least 5 years older than you ever touch you in a sexual way?
- you feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were special?
- you feel you didn’t have enough to eat, wore dirty clothes, or needed more care then you were getting?
- your parents drink too much or get too high to care for you?
- a parent or adult have a drinking or addiction problem?

If those questions resonate for you, take this quiz and get your ACE Score here.

Do You Know What Your ACE Score Means?

If you answered yes to a couple or flew of those questions, please read up on ACEs. Why? Oh my, because you may be at increased risk for any of the following:

  • liver disease
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • depression
  • alcohol abuse, over use, and alcoholism
  • domestic abuse
  • suicide
  • smoking and/or early initiation of smoking
  • early initiation of sexual activity

That list is science-based, based on a longitudinal study that crossed class and race lines. If you haven’t yet watched Nadine Burke Harris’ TED talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences, please view it (she is a hero of mine for three reasons: her impassioned voice, awareness-raising, and her remarkable, important work of identifying these nascent issues in children). Don’t assume that you’re not as risk — the study’s findings are compelling and show that not one of us is too rich, too poor, too pale, or too dark to suffer from the impact of our childhood. It’s not as simple as growing up and moving away from your family of origin. (The list above was taken from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study website  - I urge you to visit their site and learn about ACEs.)

If you have one of the 100+ known autoimmune diseases—such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Grave’s disease, Celiac disease, endometriosis, or multiple sclerosis—reflect on the frequency and severity of stress in your childhood home as well as events in your adult life, such as a car accident, bike accident, major fall, or chronic domestic abuse. Why? Many people who have autoimmune diseases find that they were ultimately triggered by an accident of some sort.

Steps You Can Take to Live Wisely

I wouldn’t leave you without an action plan, friends. If you’re now wondering about your health in relation to chronic stress in childhood, take the reins and take these steps:

  • Get your ACE Score (take the quiz)
  • Get a physical exam if you haven’t in the past year
  • Tell your doctor about the ACE study if they haven’t heard of it
  • Ask for tests to understand your heart and liver health and establish a baseline to track against
  • Stop multitasking

But don’t wait till your health is poor. You can change your diet now (to include more plants!) Also, check out some books about heart and liver health so that you know what pro-liver and pro-heart living looks like. Invest in your health so that you don’t have to suffer. A couple books to check out are “Healthy Heart, Healthy Planet” and “The Healthy Heart Kit.”

Learn about — and practice — breathing techniques (I recommend Dr. Andrew Weil’s breathing techniques) and also, meditation. I love this 10 minute meditation, “10 Minute to Ease Worry, Anxiety, and Urgency” as well as this one, “5 Minute Anxiety Reduction Guided Meditation.  Those will address the chronic stress that it’s my guess you’re still living with because it’s all you’ve ever known.

As always and above all: Be kind to yourself.


Amy Eden is the author of The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion





  1. Charles J Gervasi says:

    I found this post amazing. I wonder how many people think they have gluten intolerance, arthritis, or fibromyalgia, but they actually have an autoimmune disease. It’s interesting that childhood stress could cause that gene to express itself.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you! You’re on to something there – and I think it’s a high number (people who think the issue is one thing, but it’s an autoimmune response). I was told I might have: chronic fatigue, Vitamin D deficiency, Epstein-Barr, arthritis, possibly Lupus…all before being diagnosed.
      The realm of autoimmune disease is a bit like the Wild West; rates of autoimmune disease are rising rapidly, and doctor’s aren’t sure how to treat it.

  2. Judy Letostak says:

    Wow! This is spot on! I have Sjogren’s and two types of incurable cancer, I also had a NM that was the cause of most of the stress in my life. I never put these together but you might be on to something! My NM died in August, and I’ve noticed my stress level has dropped tremendously. It almost feels like I’ve been released from a 46 year prison sentence and am now finally free.

    Thanks for the article and the website!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks so much Judy. That’s a lot of disease that you’re having to navigate.

      Thank goodness for stress reduction you’re feeling! The death of a narcissistic parent can be exactly like that – so, so freeing (others with narcissists in their lives really get it). It’s remarkable the lightness that comes after the ‘wicked witch is dead’ as The Wizard of Oz says. I’m glad you’re experiencing that.

      The research on autoimmune diseases also indicates that when a person has one autoimmune disease, they are more susceptible to additional autoimmune disorders (the news just gets better and better, doesn’t it? :-) ) The women who write the autoimmune paleo blog come to mind – as they have 5 autoimmune disease between them (Autoimmune-paleo.com).

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