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Trauma in childhood is associated with poor mental and physical health later in life. Those who experience childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from obesity, stroke and adult depression, amongst many other disorders. In a fascinating recent study, researchers have proposed sleep as one possible mechanism through which childhood trauma leads to these adverse poor health outcomes in adulthood.

The researchers surveyed 161 people and found a significant association between exposure to traumatic events before age 18 and poor sleep health. To evaluate sleep health, the researchers considered factors such as regularity, duration and efficiency of sleep, individual satisfaction with sleep and daytime sleepiness. Even after the data was adjusted to control for current stress levels, history of depression and sociodemographic factors, there was still a significant association between poor sleep health and high exposure to traumatic events.

Good sleep health is vital for mental and physical wellbeing. Poor sleep is associated with many health issues, from heart disease and diabetes to ADHD and bipolar disorder. These health issues are also of course similar to the ones associated with childhood trauma.

It is thought that sleep plays a vital role in restoration of normal physiological function and emotional regulation following a traumatic event. It can be thought of as a coping mechanism for the body to process the trauma. It has been found that low quantity and quality of sleep following traumatic experiences is associated with the presence of more severe PTSD symptoms. It seems that this poor quality of sleep can persist into adulthood and then contribute to the long-term deterioration of health.

The reasons why childhood trauma adversely and chronically affects sleep health are complex. The impact of trauma on cortisol regulation and the HPA-axis is one proposed mechanism. Studies have established children exposed to trauma may have a failure of normal decline of cortisol in the evening. Another possible mechanisms by which trauma exposure may impact sleep include an up-regulated sympathetic nervous system activity and interference with learning of normal coping mechanisms for stress.

Read the full study over at https://europepmc.org/article/PMC/5794533

Reference: Brindle RC, Cribbet MR, Samuelsson LB, et al. The Relationship Between Childhood Trauma and Poor Sleep Health in Adulthood. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2018 Feb/Mar;80(2):200-207. DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000542.