The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

Last month we wrote about the effects of childhood trauma on the autoimmune system. This month, we will go a bit more in-depth and look at the results of a major study of more than 17,000 people, beginning in 1995, to study reasons why obese patients found it challenging to lose weight – the results were surprising.

A chance remark by a patient in the study led to the discovery that a vast number of overweight patients suffered childhood trauma such as sexual abuse. The study eventually revealed that there was a direct link between childhood trauma and later development of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, work-related issues, and crime. Dr. Vincent Felitti, founder of the study, further discovered that the vast majority of these obese patients had more than one childhood trauma. These adults had grown up frozen in flight/fight/freeze mode, feeling they were in constant danger, and the constant flood of stress hormones led to emotional, mental and physical changes.

TraumaDr. Felitti realized that for these patients who were anywhere from 100 to 400 or more pounds overweight, the weight was symptomatic of an eating disorder related to addiction: eating and maintaining overweight felt better than the alternative. Eating brought comfort and a feeling of security, and the idea of stopping the overeating was intolerable.

Further studies based on Felitti’s revealed that there were distinct types of trauma leading to later obesity, mental health issues and overall physical health. They identified three types of abuse (sexual, verbal and physical) and five types of family dysfunction (a parent who’s mentally ill or alcoholic, a mother who’s a domestic violence victim, a family member who’s been incarcerated, a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment, and emotional or physical neglect).

These results seem to be common across boundaries of age or national origin, although the majority were middle-aged and white.The bottom line: addiction to any substance including food is not a cause in itself, but a symptom of underlying trauma, and until that trauma is dealt with, healing at an emotional or physical level cannot take place. If you recognize yourself in any part of this post, please get help.

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