The Things We Carry

What Our Ancestors Didn't Tell Us What behavioral epigenetics reveals about how trauma can transcend generations.

What if your maverick blood sugar, your obstinate obesity, the asthma that has plagued you throughout your life, or the nightmares from which you wake numb and shaking, are not the result of your own lived experience, but are instead manifestations of hidden or unspoken traumas bequeathed from past generations? What if what happened to your great-grandparents has shaped who you are through a mix of external circumstances and epigenetic expression?

In the old Darwinian understanding of genetic inheritance, evolution was thought to be a gradual process that occurred over eons as a species evolved to adapt to a changed environment. On his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, Darwin observed several species of finches. He speculated that the birds probably originated from the same ancestor finch and wondered what could now account for the slight variation among the birds. He noticed that the beaks of the ground-dwelling nut eaters were uniquely suited for their predominant food source, nuts, while the tree-dwelling insect-eating finches had slightly different beaks. From this observation, he postulated that spontaneous mutation accounted for the difference in finch beaks and that a process of natural selection allowed for the mutant birds to thrive.

In The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance, Nessa Carey, a molecular biologist, writes that our understanding of DNA based on Mendelian and Darwinian principles, and the work of Watson and Crick, cannot sufficiently explain rapid changes in species that occur in a single generation. As she sees it, epigenetics is revolutionizing how we understand biology. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, epigenetics is at play.

Take, for example, identical twins who have the same DNA code. In childhood, they appear to be identical, but as they age and are subject to different environmental and emotional conditions, they may lose their look-alikeness and develop different physical characteristics and medical conditions. Let’s say both twins carry a genetic mutation that predisposes a person to get breast cancer. How do we explain only one twin getting the disease? If DNA were completely responsible for shaping a person, we would expect the twins to be identical in every way, including which heritable diseases they get. This isn’t what necessarily occurs. Epigenetics explains changes in gene activity and expression not dependent on our DNA sequence.

Epigenetics is one way to explain the connection between nature and nurture, or as Carey puts it, “how the environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.” The process of epigenetics changes the chemical modifications surrounding and attaching to our genetic material that in turn changes the way genes are switched on or off without altering the genes themselves.

I was drawn to epigenetics while doing research on transgenerational trauma for my second novel which explores how the hidden or suppressed stories within a family line can shape future generations. In my own life, I couldn’t account for the dread that would sometimes descend on me for no apparent reason. It seemed to me there was something vaster, more amorphous and inexplicable at work than the usual psychological culprits. I needed to understand what it was. I began to wonder if the darkness I carried had its source in the suffering of unknown ancestors whose history of banishment and exile was in my blood. Epigenetics offered some answers.

In a landmark epidemiological study that investigated the effect of famine in pregnant Dutch women during The Hunger Winter, from November 1944 through the spring of 1945, researchers found that a mother’s starvation affected the birth weights of children who had been in the womb during that difficult period. The children of mothers who were malnourished during their first trimester had children with higher rates of obesity in later years. The traumatic stress in the wombs of the Dutch mothers during The Hunger Winter somehow transferred effects to the children, grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of the original mothers.

In the relatively new field of behavioral epigenetics, Holocaust studies and research have studied the physiological and psychological effects of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other overwhelming emotional experiences such as occur from natural disasters, rape, the loss of a child, or an abusive home situation. Their findings have documented that trauma can affect the expression or suppression of certain genes, not only for the person involved but also for succeeding generations.

In a recent talk on NPR, the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson raises the question of “ancestral memory” in the descendants of Africans slaves who crossed the Atlantic in slave ships under horrific conditions. Could the prevalence of high blood pressure among African-Americans today be an epigenetic response to the trauma experienced by the slaves who survived the voyage from Africa? Woodson speaks of her fear of swimming in large bodies of water, attributing this fear, which she shares with other African-Americans, to a set of behaviors loosely defined as “The Middle Passage Syndrome.”

What about the effects of familial shame, guilt, despair, rage, hopelessness? Can these be passed on to descendants? Evidence points to the affirmative. Silence, concealment, denial, dissociation are ways individuals and families cope with overwhelming experiences. Many of us are raised with the dictums: It’s water under the bridge. The past is the past. Don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, what is unthinkable or unmentionable does not disappear from our psyches. While the horror may be suppressed in the victim and even her offspring, third and fourth generations often feel “haunted” by something they can’t name. Nightmares, depression, anxiety, and somatic metaphors that stand for the initial trauma resurrect the historical suffering in new forms.

In her book, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, French psychotherapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger describes a patient she calls “the butterfly chaser.” The case offers a fascinating instance of how ancestral traumas can influence and shape an individual who has no knowledge of them:

“The patient was a geology lover. Every Sunday he went out looking for stones, collecting them and breaking them. He also chased butterflies, caught them and stuffed them in a jar of cyanide before pinning them up.”

Distraught with his life, the man went for counseling. His analyst decided to investigate the man’s family, going back several generations. What the analyst learned was that the patient had a grandfather who nobody mentioned and who was a secret. The doctor convinced the patient to find out more about the grandfather. In doing so, the troubled patient discovered that his mother’s father had done “shameful things.” Among other unlawful deeds, he was suspected of being a bank robber and was sent into forced labor, in French, casser les cailloux, which means, “to break rocks.” Later, the grandfather was executed in the gas chamber. The rock-breaking, butterfly-gassing grandson had known none of this.

Schützenberger continues: “In a certain number of cases, pastimes, hobbies or leisure activities which can derive from family secrets, are surprisingly full of meaning.” Her book was written in 1998, before knowledge of epigenetics, but she writes: “strange behavior, illness or delirium” are often the result of these inherited “ghosts” who are half-buried in our unconscious, like a secret buried alive.

However, we are more than our ghosts, more than the composite of our memories, inherited or otherwise. In The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics, developmental cognitive neuroscientist David S. Moore cautions against viewing epigenetics as “fetal programming.” Writing about the effects of abusive parenting on subsequent generations, he finds recent research encouraging: “The possibility that these sorts of patterns reflect epigenetic effects is exciting because epigenetic effects are potentially reversible, either through interventions with specific drugs or through treatment programs that provide other experiences.”

What might these other experiences be? To this point, Jungian analyst James Hollis, in his book Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, asks: “How do we exorcise the haunting of our separate histories? How do we see outside the lens ground for us by fate…?”

His answer aims to inspire creativity. “The difference between us and the mill horse is our capacity for imagination,” he writes, reminding us that our neuroses keep us stuck in old patterns. Our complexes “can only replay the old events, scripts, and moribund outcomes of their origin.”

In suggesting we look to our imaginations as a portal to healing, Hollis leads us back to the ancient arts of ceremony and ritual, and to our in-dwelling creative spirits that remain alive no matter what terrible thing has happened to us. Here might be the way, exclusive of therapy and medication, to re-imagine and remember who we are beyond our traumas. We are our own best shamans, capable of connecting to those divine forces that lie outside our ego’s tunneled and sometimes tortured vision.

Healing trauma involves movement, intrapsychic and literal. If trauma freezes us to a spot in time, a place-memory, and to inherited patterns of behavior, so self-expression in the form of creative ceremony—dancing, singing, sculpting—inspires new energies to flow. Pick up your drum! Dance under the moon! Start a journal. Transformation begins with following your brave heart into the unknown.

Written By : Dale M. Kushner

What Your Spit Says About Your Health

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then spit is the mirror to the body. It reveals much about your overall well-being and is an excellent early indicator of disease and infection. However, if you are anything like the average person, you probably don’t give your saliva much thought. This is a mistake. It is time to give your spit the attention it deserves. Your body produces around 1-2 liters of saliva per day that contribute to your oral health, provide enzymes to help break down food, and can let you know when something is amiss with your health. Pay attention to your spit…it has a lot to say.

Spit screening

Recent technology has lead to great advances in the medical realm of saliva screening. Doctors can now use a small vial of your spit to diagnose autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, HIV, oral cancer, periodontal diseases, and much more. Unlike drawing blood, it is non-invasive and can provide a wonderful insight into your health.

What your spit is saying about your health

You could be a mouth breather

If your saliva is thick and tacky on your tongue, you may be breathing through your mouth without even realizing it. Proper saliva levels are essential to help protect from cavities, and bacteria build-up. When you breathe through your mouth, you not only lose saliva but could be experiencing a more significant health concern as well. Many people who are mouth breathers have sleep apnea and can develop dry mouth overnight because they are not getting proper airflow through their nasal passages. It is also possible to become a temporary mouth breather if you are suffering from a cold or allergies.

You may have dry mouth

If your mouth feels dry and parched, you most likely need to rehydratewith a simple glass of water. Many people also get dry mouth when they are nervous or stressed, but this should be temporary. If you are properly hydrated and experience a persistent dryness in your throat and mouth, you may have cause for concern. Dry mouth, or xerostomia is most commonly caused by medications including blood pressure, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal drugs and could be indicated by thick, stringy saliva. Over time, dry mouth will invite cavities and gum disease and can even make it hard to swallow or chew. If you are on any prescriptions and believe you have dry mouth, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication. 

You have reflux

Spit should not have a taste; it is merely the substance produced by your salivary glands to aid in washing down food particles and fighting tooth decay. If your saliva tastes nasty and sour, you may have reflux. Reflux is when stomach acid bubbles up into your throat and causes heartburn and nausea along with that unpleasant taste in your mouth. Those suffering from frequent reflux may need to implement diet and lifestyle changes to find relief. 

You are pregnant

Though it is one of the lesser-known effects of pregnancy, studies showthat women who are expecting may have overactive saliva production. This can come in conjunction with nausea and morning sickness, or it could be an isolated event. Thankfully, this increase in saliva is nothing to be worried about. Chew on a piece of gum or suck on a mint to help swallow some of that extra spit. 

You could have an oral infection

White, clumpy saliva along with pain in the mouth and throat is often an indicator of an oral yeast infection caused by the candida albicans fungus. This infection is called “thrush” and is usually rare in healthy adults. However, if you have diabetes or a compromised immune system, you may have an increased risk of developing this fungus. Older people and children are also more susceptible. Usually, doctors will prescribe an antifungal mouthwash to help eradicate the infection. Keep in mind, dry mouth can cause a similar consistency spit and can often be a precursor to thrush. 

Always be sure to practice good oral hygiene to keep your salivary glands happy and avoid gum infection and mouth diseases. Brush at least twice per day and floss once to remove food debris and bacteria.

-Susan Patterson

How to Apply Yoga Ideals to Your Daily Lifestyle

One of the biggest disappointments about the modern day practice of yoga (particularly in Western countries) is the fact that many times those who engage in its use do so only for the physical benefits of it and often completely ignore the numerous emotional and spiritual advantages it offers.

 

While there is certainly no argument from us about the many virtues yoga can provide from a physical standpoint such as improved strength, better sleep, increased circulation, and an overall better general health, transcending the physical barriers into the deeper realms of mind and soul will truly open your eyes as to what this ancient practice is really all about.

 

Yoga in its true form promotes a harmonious balance of the three aspects of our lives; body, mind, and soul. Through the various teachings and philosophies we find ways to bring these different planes of existence together to form one universally centered being. Focusing solely on the physical practices of the art may lead to a number of benefits, but it will cost you many more.

There are several ways that one can unlock the other aspects of yoga into their daily lives, making it more than just a simple part of their daily exercise routine. There are countless opportunities each day for every one of us to use the things we learn in class or from our private instructors that can help to calm our minds and bring peace to our spirits in an increasingly volatile world. 

One such place would be at work. Regardless of what you do for a living, whether it be an office job, a manual labor job, or even if you work remotely from your home or a nearby coffee shop, the stress, anxiety, and pressure of the workplace is ever-present.

Taking a few minutes between sales calls or during a scheduled break to practice a few poses, engage in some breathing exercises, or even get in a short meditation session can all help to bring those three branches of the human tree back into balance.

Vacations and trips are another wonderful time to practice making yoga techniques and philosophies part of your everyday life. After all, it’s the stressful and frustrating aspects of your life that you are getting away from, not the positive and beneficial ones. Take the time to go out into nature to an area that you’ve never been before and simply be present in the moment.

Maybe it is an incredible view of a beautiful mountain range. Perhaps it is the serene sounds of a flowing waterfall. It may even be the feel of the wind as it rushes through the trees. These opportunities are rare in our normal daily routines and can be some of the most enjoyable experiences we could hope to have.

Remembering these exact moments when practicing yoga back home can take you right back to that place of calm and peace, helping you to better incorporate each of the three separate yet intertwined components of body, mind, and soul.

Written By: Avery Bullock