Past Family Trauma Is in Your Genes

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Everyone knows about DNA, but did you know that the trauma of your ancestors can determine how your DNA is expressed? This is the study of epigenetics. Epi is a Greek prefix that means “on top of,” so while your actual DNA doesn’t change, the switches — so to speak — on top of them can turn things on and off.

Of mice and cherry blossoms.

One of the more talked about studies in the field involves mice and cherry blossoms. Male mice were shocked while the smell of cherry blossoms was pumped into their cages. Quickly, the male mice merged the smell with pain, resulting in them fearing the smell of the cherry blossoms. Their sperm was then used to impregnate female mice and those offspring were raised by other mice who had not been involved with the cherry blossom experiment. And still, those pups demonstrated a fear of cherry blossoms and had more receptors to alert them to the smell.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote, “the sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” Ibsen paraphrased in Ghosts that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children,” but in epigenetics this is a case of the past trauma of the fathers marking the present of their offspring. However, those markings can be lifted, as our epigenetic inheritance is not set in stone.

DNA's desire to turn poison into medicine. 

I recently learned that African American women have the highest baseline levels of cortisol in America — this makes sense when you look at the history of America regarding slavery. Slavery was a barbaric system that damaged the souls of all involved and is the root of the systemic racism we are still battling today. It was also a special type of Hell for Black women who not only endured the inherent degradation and abuse of the system but also physically gave birth to babies, that they may or may not have had the opportunity to mother, and who they knew were fated to be treated as no more than chattel.

Cortisol is a hormone that helps us manage stress, and since Black women today still reside at the intersection of misogyny and racism it’s no wonder that we are the most stressed. Therefore, our bodies respond as if we are constantly under attack, which is why heart disease is the number one killer of African American women. All of this makes me want to cry, especially since heart disease has killed or impacted almost everyone in my maternal line. But, as a believer in being able to turn poison into medicine, I have to marvel at how our ancestors survived the trauma of slavery and passed on the ability to manufacture so much cortisol down to us. It’s as if they were saying to future generations: “life is hard, you’re going to need this.”

"As a believer in being able to turn poison into medicine, I have to marvel at how our ancestors survived the trauma of slavery and passed on the ability to manufacture so much cortisol down to us. It’s as if they were saying to future generations: “life is hard, you’re going to need this.”"

As we all know, knowledge is power, so what can we do with the knowledge of our genetic and medical history? I believe the first thing we can do is to share. Today more and more people are doing genetic testing in preparation for having children or simply discovering their roots through DNA research, yet many families still don’t talk about their own personal health — it's time to change that.

Creating a reset.

Now, back to the mice and the cherry blossoms: further studies showed that the mice could be reconditioned not to fear cherry blossoms, which also means that we humans can also reset or turn off whatever epigenetic traits might be running in the background that we don’t need. Whether that reset takes the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, incorporating yoga, qigong, or working with a functional medicine doctor to up your supplement game, let’s do whatever it takes to live the long healthy life our ancestors were trying to provide. And, to my African American sisters, I’d say we especially need to take some regular deep breaths and get some serious good sleep because it takes more than cortisol to change the world.

Tags: Family, Self Care

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Simbi Hall

Filmmaker Simbiat Hall graduated with honors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a double major from the Institute... See Full Bio

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