The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, has just published interesting findings showing that: “increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in babies and small children who are separated from their parents, especially their mothers, could have a long-term genetic impact on future generations.”
The Cortisol Effect
In fact, several research studies have indicated that small children suffer from higher cortisol levels if they are looked after for over thirty hours each week outside the home, particularly if the care is poor quality. Note: cortisol is best known for generating the “fight or flight” response. Moreover, Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray, who is the lead researcher of this project, and President of the charity, “What About the Children”, as well as University of Exeter’s Emeritus Professor of General Practice, remarked: “Cortisol release is a normal response to stress in mammals facing an emergency and is usually useful. However, sustained cortisol release over hours or days can be harmful.”
Gray and his research team note that stress comes about through elevated levels of cortisol, and that the latter is: “a sign of stress and that the time children spend with their parents is biologically more important than is often realised. [Further], stress has been associated with children, particularly boys, acting aggressively.” However, it has to be noted that while a substantial majority of children are negatively affected this way, some are not.
When It All Goes Wrong
As the Mayo Clinic notes: generally speaking, our body’s stress-response structure is self-limiting. This means that as soon as a perceived threat has gone, our hormone levels revert to normal. To that end, when our cortisol and adrenaline levels fall, our blood pressure and heart rate revert to baseline levels, and other systems return to normal. Conversely, if stressors are constantly present, and we always feel under attack, then our evolutionary fight or flight response remains on. Hence the children’s behavior can change due to these biological changes. Moreover, their family and carers may not be aware of this scenario, and the children may be blamed for their behavior, if it is not balanced and harmonious.
Therefore, carers and family have to be mindful of the fact that: too much exposure to cortisol and the other stress hormones, something which comes about from the long-term activation of the stress-response system: “can disrupt almost all our body’s processes. This puts us at increased risk of many health problems. These include: memory and concentration impairment, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, heart disease, headaches, digestive issues, depression and anxiety.
Indeed, as the study authors note: “Raised cortisol levels are associated with reduced antibody levels and changes in those parts of the brain which are associated with emotional stability. Environmental factors interact with genes, so that genes can be altered, and once altered by adverse childhood experiences, can pass to future generations. [And] such epigenetic effects need urgent study”. Let’s hope that this will take place sooner rather than later…