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Health Impacts of Trauma, What Can We Do?

Written by

Deborah Freudenmann BHSc

In this article we will discuss the impacts of trauma and understand how it affects our health. But more importantly, what we can do to support ourselves during times of distress with supplementation and other therapies.
Impacts of trauma

What is trauma?

Psychological trauma can result from witnessing an event that is perceived to be life-threatening or to pose the potential of injury both physically and emotionally to ourselves or others. Please note, we are not talking about long term trauma or childhood trauma here.

These events can vary from person to person, such as:

  • A traumatic event to a loved one
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Sexual violence
  • Rape
  • Child with serious illness
  • Disasters
  • Life-threatening illness
  • Automobile accident
  • Other life-threatening accidents
  • Unexpected death of a loved one
  • Mugged or threatened with a weapon

 

These experiences, which are often accompanied with intense fear, horror, and helplessness, can lead to acute disturbance or the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How an individual responds to trauma depends not only on the characteristics of the event, but also on factors specific to the individual.

The psychological trauma brought about by the experience of profound threat is limited to an acute, disturbance. Though acute, such reactions can be quite unpleasant and are typically characterized by phenomena that can be grouped for the most part into three primary domains:

1. Reminders of the exposure (including flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares)
2. Activation (including hyperarousal, insomnia, agitation, irritability, impulsivity and anger)
3. Deactivation (including numbing, avoidance, withdrawal, confusion, de-realization, dissociation, and depression).

In general, these reactions provoke minimal functional impairment over time. On the other hand, chronic dysregulation of these systems can lead to functional impairment in certain individuals who become “psychologically traumatized” and suffer from PTSD.

Impacts of trauma

What does trauma do to our health?

The first reaction to a stressor is caused by imbalances in the central nervous system (CNS) through overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and suppression of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The SNS stimulates a defensive fight-or-flight response when exposed to what we perceive as a possible threat. A healthy response following an exposure to harm or danger would involve turning on the fight-or-flight response while harm is perceived. This SNS response releases various hormones which lead to an upregulation of our response to stress levels and drives abnormal stress encoding and fear processing. But then once the danger is no longer there the fight-or-flight response is turned back off.

However, sometimes individuals are unable to turn off the fight-or-flight response and therefore as a result they are controlled by the SNS.

Impacts of trauma

When we experience trauma, whether it is an acute disturbance or a long term development it can impact our overall health.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is the body’s major response system for stress. Through the activation of this axis, cortisol is produced and released by the adrenal glands. The release of cortisol activates sympathetic nervous pathways and generates negative feedback to both the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary. This negative feedback system appears to be compromised in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis is impacted and abnormal thyroid function (altered T3:T4 ratio) can be an effect of trauma/high stress. This upregulates the response to stress levels and drives abnormal stress encoding and fear processing.

Core neurochemical features include abnormal regulation of catecholamines (increased dopamine, norepinephrine) resulting in increased arousal, startle response, increases pulse, blood pressure and response to memories.

Serotonin, GABA and peptide levels are decreased each of which are found in brain circuits that regulate/integrate stress and fear responses as well as mood.

Impacts of trauma

Trauma as well disrupts our digestion as predictably and dangerously as it does our thinking and feeling.

Stages of damage to gut/digestion/liver from trauma and stress:

  • Cephalic – loss of appetite, food tastes like chalk – “free response”, eating fast and compulsively, choosing “comfort foods”
  • Stomach – impaired acid production – poor digestion and impaired absorption of nutrients
  • Small intestine – Villi damage, leaky gut causing food sensitivities and systemic inflammation – leads to anxiety and depression.
  • Liver and pancreas secretion also affected
  • Detoxification slows down
  • Microbiome disruption, SIBO, bacterial and pathogenic overgrowth
 
The whole body (not just the brain) is affected by the experience of trauma.

What can we do?

A high-antioxidant and anti-inflammatory diet, including foods such as citrus fruits, broccoli, artichokes, berries, apricots, green tea, kale, and spinach, can help reduce the effects of oxidative stress on the body. Consuming wholefoods, spray free, non-processed, fiber rich, lots of fruits and vegetables will help to nourish the microbiome.

Providing proper nutrition plays an important role, as many amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients play key parts in the biochemical pathways of the stress response. Avoiding depletion of these vital nutrients may reduce the risk and severity of acute disturbance and development of PTSD.

Impacts of trauma

B VITAMINS

An activated B vitamin complex including vitamin B1, B3, B5, B6, B19 and B9 are essential.
B vitamins are:

  • protective nutrients for the adrenals
  • decrease stress-induced cortisol response
  • improve sleep quantity and quality
  • cofactor for synthesis of GABA, serotonin and dopamine
  • reset circadian rhythms normalizing sleep and cortisol peaks
  • supports methylation pathways, neurotransmitter formation and detoxification

 

VITAMIN C

Vitamin C is a highly effective antioxidant and crucial in adrenal function and maintenance of healthy levels of cortisol and steroid hormone DHEA. Deficiencies of vitamin C can have profound effects on adrenal function.

 

MACRO ELEMENTS

Magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium are all macro elements required in greater quantities than other minerals. These minerals are important in support and maintaining balanced adrenal function, supporting the stress response as well as formation and release of adrenal hormones.

AMINO ACIDS

The aromatic amino acids tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine are important as precursors of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) and the catecholamine’s. Stress depletes the brain reserves of the catecholamine neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine as well as impacting serotonin and melatonin production.

PROBIOTICS

Traumatic incidences have been proved to instantly alter the gut microbiota. Taking a good quality probiotic supplement can have beneficial effects on re-establishing the microbiome balance, influencing behavior, the adrenal pathway and neurochemicals in the brain. Stress-induced changes in the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system display sensitivity to probiotic intervention. Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus rhamnosus cause less anxiety-like behaviors, reduced inflammation and decreased GI discomfort produced by stress.

DIGESTIVE ENZYMES

Digestive enzymes can be used to enhance the proper breakdown of foods to utilize nutrients.

  • Protease breaks down protein
  • Amylase converts carbohydrates
  • Lipase breaks down fats

When your system is low on digestive enzymes, it can have a hard time breaking down certain foods. As our body’s enzyme production is impacted in high stress and during traumatic events, supplementation is often required.

ADAPTOGENIC HERBS

In addition, we can utilize adaptogenic herbs to improve coping mechanisms during stress. Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), have anti-stress properties that can also play a vital role in addressing the stress response in the ANS and reducing the effects of PTSD.

HOMEOPATHICS

Any sudden fright or a prolonged state of high anxiety and fear will respond well to the homeopathic medicine called Aconite or Aconitum. This is the medicine to give when something happens unexpectedly and has a high impact, often with a fear of death and for one’s own safety or the safety of others. Give Aconite in either the 30 or 200 potency to help cope.

BACH FLOWER ESSENCES

Bach flower essences such as rescue remedy is an excellent choice in emergency situations when it is important to maintain composure to deal with the situation at hand.

  • Cherry Plum – for fear of losing control
  • Rock Rose – for terror, panic, and nightmares
  • Star of Bethlehem – for recovering from sudden shock
  • Impatiens – to help you slow down and relax
  • Clematis – to help you think clearly

SLEEP

After a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb your sleep patterns. A lack of sleep can make your trauma symptoms worse and make it harder to maintain your emotional balance. Try go to sleep and get up at the same time each day and aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

OTHER THERAPIES

Providing resiliency training to address physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual strengthening, as well as gaining tools in stress management techniques, can also act as preventative measures. Some effective techniques can include psychology and counselling sessions, talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Other options include tai chi, meditation, float tanks, massages, sun bathing etc.

And remember, acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. Accepting your feelings is part of the grieving process and is necessary for healing.

References

Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: The neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(3), 263–278.

Olff, M., Langeland, W., & Gersons, B. P. R. (2005). Effects of appraisal and coping on the neuroendocrine response to extreme stress. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 29(3), 457–467. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.12.006

Howard, S., & Crandall, M. (2007). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder What Happens in the Brain? US Naval Observatory, 1–18. Retrieved from http://www.paddnn.com/uploads/Paddnn_Robin_handout_1.pdf

Head, K. A., & Kelly, G. S. (2009). Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: Adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Alternative Medicine Review, 14(2), 114–140.

Benjet, C., Bromet, E., Karam, E. G., Kessler, R. C., Mclaughlin, K. A., Ruscio, A. M., … Koenen, K. C. (2016). The overall rate of trauma exposure does not appear to be higher among women. Psychological Medicine, 46(2), 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291715001981.The

Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Milanak, M. E., Miller, M. W., Keyes, katherine M., & Friedman, M. J. (2013). Prevalence Using DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria. J Trauma Stress, 26(5), 537–547. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21848.National

Serefko, A., Szopa, A., Wlaź, P., Nowak, G., Radziwoń-Zaleska, M., Skalski, M., & Poleszak, E. (2013). Magnesium in depression. Pharmacological Reports, 65(3), 547–554. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1734-1140(13)71032-6

Young, S. N. (1983). Metabolism in the Nervous System. Metabolism in the Nervous System, (July 1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-4367-7

Howard, B. M., Kornblith, L. Z., Christie, S. A., Conroy, A. S., Nelson, M. F., Campion, E. M., … Cohen, M. J. (2017). Characterizing the gut microbiome in trauma: Significant changes in microbial diversity occur early after severe injury. Trauma Surgery and Acute Care Open, 2(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1136/tsaco-2017-000108

Dowd, D. A. (2010). Neurology and Trauma : Impact and Implications.

Levin, B. L., & Hanson, A. (2020). Rural Behavioral Health Services. Foundations of Behavioral Health, 301–319. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18435-3_14

Cho, I., & Blaser, M. J. (2012). The human microbiome : at the interface of health and disease, 13(April). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrg3182

Cryan, J. F., & Dinan, T. G. (2012). Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13(10), 701–712. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3346

Matosin, N., Cruceanu, C., & Binder, E. B. (2017). Preclinical and Clinical Evidence of DNA Methylation Changes in Response to Trauma and Chronic Stress. Chronic Stress, 1, 247054701771076. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547017710764

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    4 Responses

    1. Leigh Erin Connealy, MD says:

      Hello Marcus and Deborah – on behalf of Dr. Connealy and her entire team we wanted to send you this note. We want Marcus to know we wish him well wishes at this time. His contributions are second to none when it comes to education. Please give him our best and we hope that you can update us of his progress to recovery.

      1. Deborah Freudenmann says:

        Hello Dr. Connealy and Team, thank you kindly for the best wishes and thoughts! We wholeheartedly appreciate it and shall pass them on to Marcus. Any updates will be made via our newsletter once we have more information. Hope you are all well. Warmest regards

        1. Michelle Hardy says:

          Marcus and Deborah, you have made such and incredible contribution to health education to so many, myself included. I want to thank you and send my well wishes and prayers to you for your healing journey. Bless you and lifting you up at this challenging time. You are deeply loved and appreciated.

          1. Thank you so much for your good wishes. They are received with gratitude.

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