What the ACEs study can tell you about your health. Blog post on Find My Energy website

What the ACEs Study Reveals About Your Health

Could the ACEs study be the most important breakthrough ever in human health?

That is a pretty bold question I’m asking. I will leave you to see if you agree with me at the end of this article. We’re going to be exploring the ACEs study. What is it? Why might it be the key to unlocking the door to recovery for chronic health conditions? Most importantly, how can this study help you?

You may have arrived here after reading this blog post (follow this link if you missed it). In that post, I asked if you believed you had experienced trauma. And, if you said no, to check in here and make sure you weren’t missing anything. So, here we are…if you want to know the answer, see how many ACEs you experienced…keep reading to find out.

What is the ACEs study?

Don’t worry, this is not a complex or boring piece of medical research. In fact, it is a very interesting story that resonates with a lot of people. You may even be one of those people.

An invitation from CDC

Let’s go back to the early 1990s. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA believed they might have uncovered the root cause of all chronic disease: obesity.

They reached out to Dr Vincent Felitti and offered him the job of tackling this epidemic. He set up a clinic to develop a strategy for tackling obesity and study the results. Dr Felitti developed a very successful program for weight loss. His students were achieving stunning results – losing 100lbs in a matter of a few months. All seemed to be going well, until…

A staggering revelation

As Dr Felitti was preparing the results of his study, he realised something slightly disturbing. Many of his “star pupils” started dropping out of the course, without warning.

Being a curious scientist, he decided to try and discover why this was.

A chance conversation with one student fell like a bombshell. This student revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child. When she started losing weight, she started gaining attention from men. That attention began to trigger all the feelings that she had been suppressing and avoiding, around the early-life abuse. It simply didn’t feel safe to be a normal weight. So, she dropped out of the program and returned to putting on the weight that allowed her to feel safe.

Now, this could have been a one-off. But as Dr Felitti spoke with more of the students who had dropped out, a theme emerged. The over-eating that was causing the obesity was a means of helping those people to feel safe. They hadn’t all experienced the same childhood abuse, but they had all found that eating was a way to distract from overwhelming emotions.

Trauma patterns

Now, you might be thinking there’s nothing “new” about this. We all know about “emotional eating”, don’t we? Maybe we eat more when we’re depressed. Perhaps it’s to stave off boredom. And, yes, in its more extreme forms, over-eating can be a form of self-punishment.

You may also be thinking that this is simply lack of willpower. People who over-eat are just “weak”. All they need is a good diet, right?

Well, that was the reason the CDC commissioned and funded this center. To give people a system to help them lose weight. But the thing that triggered them all to step out of that system was the deep, deep unsafety that the weight loss triggered. This is not lack of willpower: this is a subconscious survival pattern. It comes from the Central Nervous System and it is a trauma pattern.

How could this study unlock the door to understanding chronic illness?

As Dr Felitti’s work continued, he formulated a simple 10-question survey that he began giving to everyone who entered the clinic. Those ten questions were designed to track how much trauma a person had suffered during childhood. He called these Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs).

Before long, a clear pattern began to emerge: the more trauma experienced, the greater the likelihood of drop out.

The team broadened this study, taking it beyond the clinic and using it to track the correlation between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic illness. Guess what? The correlation was immense!

A few results

Since the official study was carried out between 1995 and 1997, numerous research papers have built upon this to measure the impact of trauma on various health conditions.

Simply asking how many of the ten Adverse Childhood Events a person has experienced, reveals some alarming statistics.

Compared to someone reporting no ACES, those with a total of 4 ACES or more are:

  • 240% more likely to contract hepatitis
  • 390% more likely to suffer Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • have a 240% higher risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases
  • twice as likely to be smokers
  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide
  • 7 times more likely to become an alcoholic
  • 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.

More likely to be violent, to have multiple marriages, suffer more broken bones, more depression and more auto-immune disease. Ultimately, life expectancy can also be affected. And, shockingly, these participants were not all from deprived backgrounds: they represented average Americans.

In the original study, focusing purely on family background, a staggering 69.9% of participants reported at least one ACE. When the study was enlarged to include “community stressors”, the number reporting at least one ACE rose to 83.2%.

What does this tell us about chronic disease?

The implications of this study are enormous. The CDC was correct to see how obesity weakens the biology, causing many systems to run under too much pressure. Yes, chronic conditions, like heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes can result. So, too, can serious diseases like cancer.

The ACEs study revealed that the obesity was not the root cause of the problem. It was actually a solution for yet another underlying problem: trauma.

So, what we are looking at is an epidemic of chronic disease, in many variants, built upon a common theme: trauma.

And, as this began to sink in, it became clear that food is just one solution to the problem of trauma. Some people, when faced with overwhelming emotions turn to drugs or alcohol, others turn to exercise or work. Some of these coping mechanisms we regard as “socially acceptable” (eating, drinking, working) – maybe even “healthy” (exercise). Others are seen as criminal behaviours (taking drugs). So, we are not even aware that these activities might be covering up a deeper problem.

What does the ACEs study mean for you?

Well, let me invite you think about your own life and whatever chronic health condition(s) you are living with right now.

In my case it was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME). Looking back, my “Achilles heel” was working and exercise. I used ballet classes to help myself distract. Working crazy hours at my job helped me avoid facing problems for which I had no solution. My body stopped me in my tracks when I was just 26. I’m hugely grateful for this. Many people wait until middle or later life and maybe find themselves staring at a cancer diagnosis or suffering a heart attack.

So, let me ask you, what avoidance strategies do you employ? You don’t need to start judging yourself here. Just have a think, and maybe you will even see some patterns that you hadn’t really noticed before.

The Ten ACEs Questions

Now, I invite you to see what your ACEs score is. Here are the ten questions from the original ACEs study. How many of these apply to you BEFORE the age of 18?

I recommend you assess your score twice. First, think about your immediate family. Then, think more widely about your early life, including school, social life, community. All of those experiences will be determining your chances of developing chronic disease.

  • Did you feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, or had no one to protect or take care of you?
  • Did you lose a parent through divorce, abandonment, death, or other reason?
  • Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide?
  • Did you live with anyone who had a problem with drinking or using drugs, including prescription drugs?
  • Did your parents or adults in your home ever hit, punch, beat, or threaten to harm each other?
  • Did you live with anyone who went to jail or prison?
  • Did a parent or adult in your home ever swear at you, insult you, or put you down?
  • Did a parent or adult in your home ever hit, beat, kick, or physically hurt you in any way?
  • Did you feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were special?
  • Did you experience unwanted sexual contact?

What happens next?

Having calculated your ACEs score, you might be feeling a little concerned right now. Perhaps confused. So, what does this mean?

Well, if you are already living with a chronic disease, perhaps start to consider the role of trauma in keeping your body stuck in the disease state. Alongside your focus on treatments or drugs for whichever chronic condition you are experiencing, it may be time to start seeking some help with healing trauma.

If you want to learn more about the link between trauma and chronic disease, then read this next blog post (Click here to read it). That will introduce you to your Central Nervous System, so you can begin to understand what is happening in your body.

If you’re not already living with a chronic disease, but you have scored multiple ACEs, it may also be a good time to look at how those early life events are still affecting you today. If you have already taken steps to work on your mental health, you may not need to do anything more. But if you are aware that you are still running some trauma patterns, it might be a good idea to get some help with your trauma now. Preventing a chronic disease before it starts is a lot easier than trying to recover from it later.


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