I feel powerful today. I can affect change in others at the cellular level. You can too.

I can’t actually alter DNA, but I can change the way people’s genes are expressed. (Just Google epigenetics.)

Have you heard of the ACE study? All it takes to hijack someone’s future health and well-being is to create chaos in their lives. Of course, if you add drug abuse, food scarcity, or domestic violence to the pot, that could accelerate the change. But it could be as simple as berating them daily or shoving them or breaking things around them when they least expect it, so that they think about it and anticipate it all the time. It could be any of the ten categories of risk. The more adverse events are layered on, the greater the chance their health will be impaired. And those epigenetic markers will help pass those health issues on to their offspring as well.

What does this mean for you? It could be you or someone you love. Two-thirds of the people surveyed had at least one risk factor. Most of that group had two or more. By the time you reach four risk factors, your chances of experiencing health impairments like heart disease, addiction and alcoholism, auto-immune disease, even divorce, rise dramatically.

Of course, children are the most vulnerable. But traumatic stress affects adults as well.

The good news is that we can also epigenetically improve a child’s life.

An earlier study was done with newborn rats. According to Moshe Szyf, they found that rats whose mothers groomed them more were better adjusted and calmer than rats whose mothers didn’t. But the best part is that when they put the baby rats from lesser groomers with foster calm mothers, the extra grooming enabled the baby rats to become well-adjusted calm adults. So, nurture, not nature.

 The ACE study found that a single caring adult can buffer a child from the effects of the stressors in her life. A loving parent or grandparent, a family friend or a committed teacher can be the support needed to keep the demons at bay.

Nadine Burke Harris developed ways to intervene and reverse the damage. We can improve a child’s future and, by extension, the future of their children. We have the power. Providing the resources to create a safe, stable home, with adults who love and care for them, with nourishing food and enriched education, much of the damage can be reversed.

And then, what if we could intervene in small ways? What if the smallest kindnesses are not just moral choices, but biochemical ones, like drops in a bucket that added together could affect a change for the better?

Extend that to us and we can combat the chaos by providing that consistent positivity to those in our lives. The next time your coworker becomes angry, wait for calm and then ask if everything is okay. When an exhausted parent with a screaming child is in line behind you at the grocery store, offer to let them go ahead. When you know someone is going through a tough time, offer specific assistance. When something is off, but you’re not quite sure what, keep watching and waiting. Offer to lend a hand even when you aren’t sure the help is needed. Trauma isn’t always visible to those around.

Give the small kindness of a smile. The small service of a listening ear. The small gift of a calm presence.

Why should we care?

Because adverse childhood experiences affect all of us.


If you want to assess your own risk, click here.


Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

To have a good night’s sleep, follow a few simple steps. First practice a relaxing routine before bed.

Before beginning her soothing routine, she checks her email one last time so it doesn’t weigh on her mind. She clicks the link to contact her legislators to encourage them to vote yes/no on that bill that makes her blood boil, types a few extra lines to get that off her chest and hits send.

She glances at the clock and sees that bedtime is approaching.  A little reading should settle her thoughts before sleep. She likes paper-and-cover books, plus staring at blue screens is linked to insomnia. Unfortunately, the first chapter opens with a sudden blizzard, a snowmobile accident, and an ominous figure barely visible through the blowing snow.

A glance at the clock shows that bedtime has passed, she’s four chapters in, and wide awake. Maybe she’ll read a little more before trying to sleep.

As she stifles a yawn, she puts the book down after chapter seven.

She completes her nighttime routine with personal hygiene, including essential brushing and flossing, because nighttime brushing is the most important time of day.

You’ll need a dark, cool, quiet room with a comfortable bed. If you live with a snorer, consider a fan for white noise, or in extreme cases, earplugs.

Easing into bed, trying not to wake her husband who is already snoring, she puts in her earplugs.

She settles gratefully under the covers, still wondering who the main character’s attacker might have been. Wriggling a little, she tries to shift her thoughts. Her mind goes back to the emails she sent, which takes her to the other ridiculous things she’s seen in the news lately, which reminds her of the storms, flooding, fires and recent crimes and…

Manage your worries and stress.

She rolls over and sternly tells herself to move on something else. She thinks about work the next day and then about the recent decisions that she disagrees with and her frustrations with not being listened to and that her toothpaste is making her thirsty and maybe a drink of water will help her settle down.

When she settles back on her pillow, she considers reading a little more, but makes herself stay in bed. She simultaneously realizes that she is getting drowsy and that her back itches right between her shoulder blades. She reaches back to scratch it, wakes up completely, and checks the clock. Two hours closer to morning.

When her mind returns to work, she must distract herself. After all, worrying never solves anything. She decides to count blessings like sheep. After family, friends and health, she thinks of the privilege of owning her own home, then wonders when the roofer will finally come to replace the roof and whether she should call them again in the morning.

She rolls over again and tries to find the most boring thing that could occupy her mind.

Halfway through the multiplication tables, she finally passes out.

 Set a schedule of regular waking and sleeping.

She wakes at six thirty without an alarm, because it’s important to wake at the same time each day when she wants a good night’s sleep. Her husband is still snoring when she takes out her ear plugs.