Our fallen world provides numerous examples of how adversity can impact our health. None of you need convincing of that reality and therefore this study appears bland at first. But read a little further and you will see that the researchers uncovered effects on children’s executive functioning and changes in stress hormones. They found measurable effects in the daily cortisol levels that varied in response to the children’s stress levels.
The researchers surveyed a variety of risk factors for early life stress in 306 children and compared them to tests of executive function skills and saliva cortisol samples on the same children. For a functional medicine physician like myself, their findings do not shock although they do sadden. Children who had higher exposure to stressful factors in the early years showed abnormalities in both areas.
On one hand, they performed more poorly on games designed to test their ability to follow instructions. Performance on these tests also correlate with better social skills in other studies.
On the other hand, their cortisol patterns came back “flatter”. Rather than the morning spike and dropping pattern over the day to spike again the next, they showed less fluctuations. Such hormonally dysregulated children tend to show more behavior problems and problems with sociability.
At Sanctuary, we utilize cortisol testing which sounds very similar to what this research used. Patients collect saliva samples on an average day before breakfast, lunch, supper, and bedtime. They mail them off to a lab and 8-10 days later we get a look at their results. We look for fluctuations from the normal ranges. Sometimes, our stressed patients will show elevated levels which match symptoms of anxiety, panic, and insomnia. Sometimes, our fatigued patients show low levels at different times of the day or a flat pattern indicating a more burnt out state.
These are tests we use more often in adults, but this research may lead me to apply the same measures to some of our chronically ill pediatric patients as well. Finding these patterns early may help us target interventions which prevent further harm to the child’s future health and functioning. As we work to restore at the root cause of patient’s illness, we can also work to minimize the long-term effects on the child’s development.
I am saddened that our world is filled with so much suffering in children, but I am thankful for more functional medicine insight into how to relieve chronic illness even in our younger patients.
Liliana J. Lengua, Stephanie F. Thompson, Lyndsey R. Moran, Maureen Zalewski, Erika J. Ruberry, Melanie R. Klein, Cara J. Kiff. Pathways from early adversity to later adjustment: Tests of the additive and bidirectional effects of executive control and diurnal cortisol in early childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579419000373
Thanks to Science Daily:
University of Washington. “Early-life challenges affect how children focus, face the day.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190605171354.htm>.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.