“My goal is to help those suffering from chronic conditions better understand the intersection between our neurobiology, immunology and the deepest inner workings of the human heart — and to use that understanding to embark on a transformation to healing.” —Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna Jackson Nakazawa has just published a book “Childhood Disrupted- How Biography Becomes Biology” that  illuminates the effects “childhood trauma” can have on health.  She knows whereof she writes. Her fathers death during her teenage years probably set her up for a paralyzing attack of an autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome decades later.

crisis situation

Adversity – in whatever form – during childhood can have long-term consequences.

The effects of childhood trauma on illness later in life are controversial but they shouldn’t be – the science is well-established. Mix together childhood trauma and illness, though, and the results can be explosive. Blame or guilt sometimes gets introduced but this is not about coping – it’s about the sometimes inevitable physiological consequences of being exposed to adverse situations.

Like any predisposing factor none of these events guarantee disaster – they just heighten the possibility it will happen. You don’t need to have a difficult childhood to have a screwed up immune system either.  My ACE score is low: I got ME/CFS another way, but some cases of ME/CFS and FM surely got their start  in childhood.

It goes something like this: a period of stress – whether from an infection, an emotionally difficult situation or whatever – puts stress chemical production on a hair-trigger – permanently. Nothing obvious happens for many years but subtle homeostatic shifts are continually eroding the resilience of  important systems. Ten, twenty, thirty years later some kind of threat – a toxin, a pathogen or some other stressor – breaks the camel’s back and a pathological state takes over. A new normal is established.

immune system

The immune system is heavily involved.

A key takeway for ME/CFS and FM patients? It’s likely the immune system at work and that makes sense. The immune system jumps in during any stressful situation and it’s got a photographic memory. However your immune system got upset (childhood adversity, a later infection or both) Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s description of the process that occurs suggests she’s hitting on something that contributes to ME/CFS and FM.

When a child faces chronic and unpredictable stressors their developing body and brain become routinely flooded with inflammatory stress chemicals that alter the expression of genes that control stress hormone output, triggering an overactive inflammatory stress response for life. When these changes occur in genes that should regulate a healthy stress response, a child’s inflammatory stress response becomes reset to “on” for life – and the brakes that should turn that stress response off don’t work. These epigenetic changes predispose an individual to lifelong inflammation and turn on genes associated with developing a range of adult diseases.

As an adult, if we find ourselves overreacting to stressors in our life with a heightened stress response – an argument with our spouse, a bill we weren’t expecting, a car that swerves in front of us on the highway – our inflammatory response stays on high, and this leads to physical disease and neuroinflammation, and mental health disorders. Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Doing  Something About It


What can be done about this? Anything that takes the stress response off it’s hair trigger and reduces inflammation can be helpful. For some people it might be diet or immune modulating drugs or mind/body work. A years focus on mind/body techniques enabled Donna to bring her immune test results to normal, reduce her prescription drug needs and reduce her symptoms markedly. She wasn’t back to normal – two bouts of Guillaine-Barre Syndrome probably make that impossible – but her health was stunningly improved.  She described her efforts in the The Last Best Cure – a book we’re following on Health Rising.

With Donna’s new book hitting the shelves today let’s take this opportunity to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test. Simply collect your score at the end and tell us where you fit in the poll below. (All answers are anonymous).

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Test

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way or attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Did you often or very often feel that …no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Did you often or very often feel that …you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

  • If yes enter 1 _______

Was your mother or stepmother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her or sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard or  ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

  • If yes enter 1 ________

Did a household member go to prison?

  • If yes enter 1 _______

Now add up your “Yes” answers: _______ This is your ACE Score

The Consequences

It should be noted that even though the risks are increased your chances of coming down with any particular disorder are still very small. These are tendencies that show up in large populations and it took large population studies to uncover them. None of the statistics means a person with a certain ACE score is going to get a disorder.

  • ACE Score – 1: Women are 20% more likely to be hospitalized with an autoimmune disorder
  • ACE Score – 4:  You are two times more likely to get cancer, 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with chronic pulmonary lung disease;  two and a half times more likely to get hepatitis, 4 1/2 times more likely to experience depression, and 12 x’s more likely to commit suicide.
  • ACE Score – 6: on average your life span is shortened by twenty years.
  • ACE Score – 7 – 3 1/2 times more likely to develop heart disease.


Donna-jackson-nakazawaDonna Jackson Nakazawa is an award winning journalist who’s recent books have featured her efforts to learn about and recover from autoimmune disorders and other chronic illnesses.

Check out an interview with Donna on her recent book here




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