The Inexorable Link Between Childhood Trauma and Hormonal Imbalances

The Inexorable Link Between Childhood Trauma and Hormonal ImbalancesThe Inexorable Link Between Childhood Trauma and Hormonal Imbalances

The America SPCC reports that in a given year, child abuse reports involve approximately 7.2 million children. Abuse has both short-term and long-term consequences, with the latter including physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Trauma also causes hormonal changes, including changes to oxytocin and cortisol—two chemicals in the brain that are vital for emotional regulation and stress management.

The Crucial Role That Oxytocin Plays in the Brain

Oxytocin, which is produced by the brain, is often called a “feel-good hormone.” It plays a role in emotional regulation and positive social interaction, and is present in the bond formed between a mother and her child—and between romantic partners. Lab studies have shown that experiencing stress and/or trauma in early life alters oxytocin levels within the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Oxytocin is primarily produced in the hypothalamus, as well as in the ovaries and testes. The amygdala, meanwhile, has a myriad of key functions, including our reaction to stressful events, emotional memory formation, and social and emotional behavior. It interacts with other brain regions (such as the prefrontal cortex) to regulate and modulate emotional responses.  

The Effect of Early Trauma on Oxytocin

Early trauma reduces oxytocin in the brain and affects it receptors in childhood and beyond. Oxytocin gives your mood a boost and is considered a powerful buffer against stressors. When you have low levels of oxytocin, you feel less protected, and you find it harder to adapt to challenges. Oxytocin alterations in early childhood increase the likelihood of anxiety and depressive behaviors, even in adulthood.

Childhood Trauma and Testosterone Levels

Testosterone is crucial to the health of men and women, as it contributes towards muscle tone, bone strength, and the production of red blood cells. It also increases energy levels and contributes to a sense of wellbeing. Childhood trauma can also indirectly lead to lower testosterone levels. Children who have been abused may have poor sleep quantity and quality. A lack of rest lowers testosterone levels, which can result in everything from increased sleepiness to poor concentration, low energy, and decreased muscle mass. Children who have been abused also have a higher likelihood of substance abuse, another factor that impacts testosterone production. Trauma can additionally skew the ratio between testosterone and cortisol (the stress hormone), causing cortisol levels to rise and testosterone to fall. 

Cortisol Elevations

Study after study has shown that early trauma is linked to high cortisol levels. For instance, in one study on people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), researchers found that participants’ cortisol levels were 60% higher than normal, and 122% higher than normal when another stressor was introduced. Chronically high cortisol levels are linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. They are also related to persistent high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) which can cause Type 2 diabetes. In fact, the activation of the stress response system affects nearly all the bodily systems. Having to constantly battle stress can trigger everything from headaches to digestive issues, muscle tension and pain, heart disease/heart attack/stroke, sleep issues, memory and concentration problems, and obesity.

Reacting to Stress in a Healthy Way

Because trauma can have long-term impacts on your healthy, it is important to take steps to battle stress proactively from a multifaceted perspective. This includes consuming a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet comprising lean meats, whole grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and healthy Omega-3 fats. It also involves getting between seven and nine hours sleep nightly, and embracing powerful holistic approaches to stress reduction. Of the many forms of relaxation in existence, meditation, yoga, and controlled breathing are some of the most successful when it comes to lowering cortisol levels. It also helps to keep a journal, aim to restructure negative thoughts, and harness the power of positive affirmations. Building healthy friendships and relationships is another powerful stress busters, as are all forms of exercise—especially outdoor and group activities! 

Trauma in early childhood affects various hormones, including oxytocin and cortisol. Other hormones (like testosterone) can also be impacted by the habits that stress can lead you to adopt. If you have been through childhood trauma, it pays to be aware of its impact on your health so you can take steps to reduce the impact of trauma and stress on your health and wellbeing.

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