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This pediatrician says stress is making kids sick and she has new ways to treat it

Nadine Burke Harris explains how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

Part of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ mission is to prevent, screen and heal. The 40-year-old pediatrician is using this approach for children experiencing toxic stress that could go unnoticed and lead to other childhood ailments.

Stress is the body’s way of responding to increased threats. When a person feels stressed, the nervous system alerts the body that an action is needed by releasing high amounts of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones released quickly can lead to changes in the function and development of a child’s brain and body.

Burke Harris is combating the issue. She formed the Center for Youth Wellness in 2011, where she treats children who have been screened and show signs of having toxic stress. Her patients are screened at the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco.

According to its website, “The Center for Youth Wellness is part of a national effort to revolutionize pediatric medicine and transform the way society responds to kids exposed to significant adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress.”

In adults, the toxic stress can be problematic and in children, it can lead to health disparities that affect the brain and body and lead to other health and social problems, such as asthma, diabetes and obesity, as well as learning difficulties.

“They would have chronic abdominal pain, headaches, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, opposition defiant disorder,” Harris said according to a recent story in the The Washington Post. “It could be that all these different kids have all these diagnoses, or it could be that there is one thing at the root of this.”

Burke Harris discovered the correlation between stress and these illnesses after reading an older study that was conducted and published more than eight years ago. The study concluded that trauma was linked to health disparities that can trickle over into adulthood.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.