Commusings: Is Shameflammation Sabotaging Your Health? by Dr. Will ColeMar 25, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
As a father to three daughters, I can easily point to how my behavior influences them – how both my strengths and unresolved (resolving) trauma impacts them, for the better and worse. It’s fairly easy to understand the ramifications of nurture.
We also comprehend how stress can impact unborn children in utero. In 1998, there was a monumental ice storm in Montreal that knocked out electricity in parts of the city for weeks and weeks. Suzanne King, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, studied the health profiles of 100 pregnant women and their children born during this period. The duration that pregnant women went without electricity made a difference in children's IQ, body mass index, immune functions, insulin secretion and risk of diabetes.
But what feels less comprehensible is that we can pass down acquired traits to our progeny. For example, it appears as if trauma or exposure to extreme toxicity or chronic stress can hypermethylate genes. For those who are into a bit of geekiness: Little carbon and hydrogen lollipops attach to the promoter region of DNA, turning off (or on) the expression of that gene. This is part of the field of epigenetics, which studies how genes express in relation to behavior and environment. What’s more, the marking of that gene can be inherited transgenerationally, so your gene expression may be passed down to your children.
Of course, this flies in the face of what we thought we knew about genetics — that genetic phenotypes evolve over long periods of time through pressure and random mutation.
This idea of being genetically unfixed is both empowering and a little scary. Empowering because you have agency. Scary because your life is not entirely your own. We are all caught up in a mutually interdependent net of humanity – in constant relationship with everything and everyone around us.
Thank goodness we have people like today’s essayist, Dr. Will Cole, to guide us, helping us make the decisions that not only benefit our own well-being but the wellness of humanity.
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Is Shameflammation Sabotaging Your Health?
By Dr. Will Cole
Excerpted from Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel
As a functional medicine practitioner, I’ve spent innumerable days educating people on the concept of food as medicine, teaching them about the pitfalls of nutrient-poor junk foods. My goal has always been to make my patients and readers aware of the link between what they eat and how they feel—a connection that conventional medicine tends to either underestimate or ignore completely. From autoimmune diseases to chronic headaches to seasonal allergies to metabolic problems to IBS, virtually every single health condition in the world can be improved by proper nutrition.
With that said, low-quality, inflammatory junk foods aren’t the only thing sabotaging our wellness. In fact, many of us experience emotional factors that are just as damaging as any refined flour or high-fructose corn syrup. These emotional factors can take many forms, but some of the most common ones I see are chronic stress, toxic productivity, perfectionism, and trauma. When these negative emotional experiences are shoved away and ignored, it starts to show up in our physical body—in other words, we start to get Shameflammation.
Shameflammation is a combination of shame and inflammation, with each one affecting the other. Shame is one of the most common underlying emotions found in people with chronic stress and unresolved past trauma that can leave you feeling anxious, hopeless, overwhelmed, and just plain disconnected from your intuition. In fact, studies have even found that shame can impact your ability to heal from sickness, make healthy choices, and stay healthy overall with some researchers describing shame as “insidious, pervasive, and pernicious.”
A Word on Intergenerational Trauma
Trauma can be a single isolated instant, such as an accident or assault—in which case it’s referred to as a simple trauma—but trauma can also be labeled complex if it occurs more than once or over a long period of time. One subset of complex trauma is called intergenerational trauma, which is also sometimes referred to as transgenerational or multigenerational trauma.
This type of trauma is passed down through generations, from those who first experience a trauma to their descendants. What would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago has become a cutting-edge field in science. Many things get passed down through families, like genetic conditions and physical characteristics. In some cases, trauma can be inherited, too, like cellular heirlooms. The symptoms of generational trauma may include hypervigilance, the sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, a sensitive fight-or-flight response, and issues with self-esteem and self-confidence.
Generational trauma may lead to an overactive immune system, which can result in more autoimmune diseases or other inflammatory issues. Trauma also influences the microglia, the brain’s immune system. When in a high trauma reactive state, the microglia eat away at nerve endings instead of enhancing growth and getting rid of damage. The microglia go haywire in the brain and cause depression, anxiety, and other brain problems. This can translate into genetic changes, which can be passed down to further generations.
In one disturbing example, scientists studied the descendants of those who lived through what is known as the Holodomor, which was a human-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s that resulted in the death of millions of people. The results of the study, which collected data from forty-four people from fifteen different Ukrainian families, showed that the coping mechanisms the survivors adopted in the 1930s were clearly passed down through two and even three generations. Many of the participants had difficulty trusting people, anxiety about food scarcity, hoarding tendencies, low self-worth, social hostility, and risky health behaviors.
Some other research being conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai shows that the descendants of survivors of the Holocaust have distinctive stress hormone profiles. More specifically, they have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps the nervous system and inflammation to calm down after a traumatic incident. This may predispose them to anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The good news? If trauma can be inherited, then healing can be, too. Healing yourself is healing your children’s children and generations that you will never see. On a daily basis, I get to see my patients around the world breaking the ancestral chains of pain, shame, and health problems.
Signs + Symptoms of Shameflammation
So, what signs indicate that your emotional world is affecting your physical health? The first sign is that you’re struggling with conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or another trauma disorder. That said, the effects of shame can go far beyond mental health. When I’m consulting with patients online, I look for the following signs and symptoms and always flag them as a reason to dig deeper into their inner world:
- Physical pain that can’t be explained or treated
- A hormone imbalance
- A disconnection from your intuition, especially when it comes to food and wellness
- Brain fog and light-headedness
- Autoimmune conditions
- Heart palpitations
- A chronic health issue that is exacerbated or triggered by stress
- Chronic fatigue
- A chronically stiff neck or back
- Constipation or diarrhea even after making dietary changes
How to Tame Shameflammation
In order to tame Shameflammation, we have to stop our emotional world from hurting our physical one. And to do that, we have to understand the ins and outs of how Shameflammation starts to build up in the first place. The perfect place to start is with the most universally experienced negative emotional experience—chronic stress.
Chronic Stress: Junk Food for the Body
The idea that stress is the worst junk food might seem somewhat out there. Could it possibly be worse than fast food or even soda? Researchers have been studying stress for years, and the consensus is that it’s one of the single biggest factors in disease and illness. We’re diving into stress first because most of us are already comfortable with the fact that we have stress in our lives, that it’s probably affecting our health, and that we’d like to change that.
Stress not only makes us feel bad in the moment but also contributes to virtually every single health condition that exists. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is directly linked to the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Research has shown that more than 60 to 90 percent of doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. One study showed that healthcare expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for people who report higher levels of stress, which makes sense when you realize that stress contributes to nearly all the health woes and aches and pains that we experience. I’m talking about headaches, asthma and allergies, depression and anxiety, chronic muscle tension, acne, poor thyroid function, weight gain, indigestion, arthritis, blood sugar imbalance, decreased bone density and muscle tissue, nausea, yeast and urinary tract infections, and even colds and sinus infections. The list goes on and on. The truth is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a disease or illness that isn’t made worse by higher levels of stress.
So what do you do?
Ultimately, shameflammation can be tamed by slowing down and reconnecting with yourself.
The protocols I offer patients include mindfulness practices like breathwork, gratitude, meditation, somatic work, and self-compassion along with nourishing and grounding recipes with a variety of superfoods that work together to nurture your gut-brain connection and heal your relationship with yourself, your body, and food.
Doing this begins a process shifting your view of health and wellness — instead of shame, health and healing is a form of self-respect!
As I often tell my patients: You can’t heal a body you hate. That journey to loving, grace-filled, nourishing wellness doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s so worth it.
Dr. Will Cole is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers over a decade ago. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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