Ask just about anyone what are the biggest influences affecting our risk of being diagnosed with countless diseases and you’ll hear a predictable list of mostly preventable factors: smoking, drinking, obesity. And, of course, genetics too. But what about whether or not your mother ate well enough while you were in her womb? Or whether you were born prematurely or underweight or spent time in the neonatal ICU? What about how much she worried about your development before ever holding you in her arms, or how long she let you cry before picking you up for a soothing cuddle?
In Scared Sick, the authors (neither of whom is a medical doctor) present research showing how the amount of stress and trauma a child experiences in utero and during the first years of life directly and indirectly set off a chain reaction in the body that will, in time, manifest into problems that could include cancer, diabetes and even mental illness.
The basic gist is that “fear experienced early and chronically” triggers disease by deregulating the relationship between the brain, important glands and various body systems. That, in turn, activates epigenetic mechanisms—changes to our gene expression, rather than our DNA—which then enable diseases to eventually befall us. The more positive emotional attachments we establish as infants, the better we can stave off sickness; the more emotional attachment is diminished, these authors suggest—say, by attending a daycare centre, especially a bad one, too soon—the more we are vulnerable.
While the explanations in Scared Sick are tedious and complicated, the premise of the book is intriguing and provocative. The notion that long before we entered this world, our biological path was altered, sometimes very negatively, is at once thrilling in its scientific significance and horrifying in its personal implications. In other words, Scared Sick is the feel-bad book of the year. And that appears to be the whole point.