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The Epigenetics of Holocaust Survivors: The Impact of Disordered Eating Across Generations

Leah Hantman

As a woman with Jewish lineage and many Jewish clients this topic has become increasingly interesting to me. My clients often remark that they never knew such factors as epigentics could influence their behaviors. This knowledge has helped them shift their mindset from one of believing that they are "inherently bad" to one of curiosity, profound familial respect, empathy and compassion.

Part 1 of this series on Epigentics will focus on understanding the basics through the lens of trauma, disordered eating and the Holocaust. The Holocaust stands as one of the darkest chapters in human history, leaving indelible scars on the survivors and their descendants. While the immediate physical and psychological effects of such trauma have been extensively studied, emerging research in the field of epigenetics sheds light on an unexpected and profound aspect of the Holocaust's legacy. Recent studies suggest that the trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors has the potential to impact future generations, influencing the development of disordered eating behaviors. There is an undeniable relationship between trauma, genes, and disordered eating across generations.

Understanding Epigenetics:

Epigenetics, the study of inherited changes in gene expression that occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence, provides valuable insights into the transgenerational effects of trauma. While our genes remain relatively stable throughout our lives, epigenetic modifications can be influenced by environmental factors, including traumatic experiences. These modifications can alter gene expression patterns, potentially passing on the effects of trauma to subsequent generations. We have heard of generational trauma in reference to health habits, behavior patterns and relationship attachment styles but this a whole other level of generational trauma happening at a cellular level.

The Epigenetic Impact of the Holocaust:

A groundbreaking study published in 2015 by Dr. Rachel Yehuda and her team at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai revealed startling evidence of the transgenerational epigenetic effects of the Holocaust. They found that children of Holocaust survivors exhibited changes in stress hormone regulation compared to individuals with no familial Holocaust exposure. These alterations in stress response systems, such as cortisol regulation, were associated with an increased risk of developing disordered eating patterns, including binge eating, emotional eating, and anorexia nervosa.

The Role of Inherited Trauma:

Inherited trauma refers to the transmission of trauma-related symptoms and behaviors across generations. The experiences of Holocaust survivors, such as severe malnutrition, persecution, and loss, created lasting psychological and physiological imprints. Epigenetic changes that occurred as a result of these experiences may have influenced subsequent generations' vulnerability to mental health conditions, including disordered eating.

Statistics and Research Findings:

1. A study conducted by Dr. Yehuda and her team found that the children of Holocaust survivors were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to individuals without a family history of Holocaust exposure.

2. Another study, led by Dr. Kellermann, examined Holocaust survivors' offspring and found an increased prevalence of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, compared to control groups.

3. Research conducted on grandchildren of Holocaust survivors revealed elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and disordered eating behaviors.

4. Epigenetic studies have highlighted specific genes that undergo modifications associated with stress response regulation, appetite control, and emotional regulation, potentially contributing to disordered eating tendencies.

Breaking the Cycle: Healing and Resilience:

While the findings surrounding the epigenetic impact of the Holocaust are sobering, they also offer hope. Recognizing the intergenerational effects of trauma allows for targeted interventions, support, and healing across generations. Therapeutic approaches that address both the psychological and physiological aspects of trauma, such as trauma-informed therapy and mindfulness practices, show promise in promoting resilience and recovery. Integrating somatic therapies and movement that regulates the nervous system can also help to rewire the brain of the sufferer while creating long term change for future generations of offspring.

The epigenetic effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations provide a compelling lens through which to understand the far-reaching consequences of trauma. The link between inherited trauma, epigenetic modifications, and disordered eating behaviors shines a light on the lasting impact of historical events on individuals and communities. By deepening our understanding of these processes, we can create change, live in a state of grace and find compassion for others.

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