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Can Early Food Trauma Adversely Affect Our Brains Decades Later?

By Mark Brady, PhD

For six weeks this summer, my wife and I participated in a program on Whidbey Island, Washington, called Detox and Discovery. It was led by Toni Marthaller-Andersen, a professional nurse-practitioner who’s passionate about the role of nourishment in health. For three weeks, based on meal plans formulated and researched by the Functional Medicine Institute, we eliminated foods that frequently cause the body trouble. Trouble can show up as headaches, bloating, heaviness, diarrhea, joint aches, or any number of other adverse conditions. After the three weeks of elimination, one by one I began reintroducing my favorite foods, paying special attention to how my body felt shortly after ingestion.

The first food I found myself craving in Week 4 was eggs. So, for our customary Friday night dinner out, my wife and I chose a local restaurant where we could get a salad with hard-boiled eggs included. I gobbled it up with gusto, especially the eggs. After we paid the bill and we were exiting the restaurant, my wife commented, “Looks like eggs don’t agree with you.”

I looked at her, perplexed. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“You just blew your nose and your eyes are watering.”

She was right, of course. I was having a full-blown histamine reaction and never connected the dots. Only it turned out that it wasn’t the eggs I was reacting to.

The Last Meal

Shortly before he abandoned our family, one of the last memories I have of my father is an incident at the dinner table. I had just turned 4 years old. My mother had made something that I didn’t like, so I didn’t eat it. I left it on my plate. “You’re not leaving this table until you eat everything on that plate,” my father declared. I refused and pushed the plate away. My father pushed it back in front of me. And so it went, for what seemed like hours and hours. My memory is that I finally wore them out and we all went to bed with my plate “unclean.” I was promised the same fare for breakfast. Fortunately, in the morning the plate was gone and the incident was not brought up again.

And what was the offending food that I refused to eat?


And what was the food in the salad that had triggered my histamine reaction outside the restaurant? Fresh spinach. (To ensure that it really was the spinach and not the egg or something else in the salad, I ate each of the salad ingredients separately later. Indeed, the spinach triggered the histamine reaction all over again. In fact, simply writing about this now has my nose running!)

When I think of how traumatic memories get formed and stored unconsciously in implicit association memory networks in the brain, it begins to make total sense that my body would react adversely to spinach. The triggering cue is the taste along with the setting— dinner at a table. A critical piece that made the experience traumatic for a 4-year-old is the demand that I not leave the table—effectively a demanded, forced “freeze response.” Unable to fight or flee, it became the only option available to me at that point. And the freeze response, as we know from polyvagal theory, highly correlates with adverse traumatic experiences.

If I think about all the food allergies I’ve had over the years—chocolate, milk, strawberries—I can associate traumatic experiences from childhood to each one of them.

Healing Yearns to Happen

This incident, and similar ones involving early trauma later surfacing due to present-time triggers, have convinced me that much like wounds to the body, early insults to our immature brain networks are constantly attempting to be repaired and restored throughout our adult lives and returned to full integrative functioning. Just as with a cut or a bruise, the keys to an effective outcome are a restorative environment and nurturing, understanding relationships.