Epigenetics & Stress: What’s the Connection?
Stress can manifest itself in many different ways, affecting your mood and behavior. However, the truth of the matter is that it can affect your health on a much deeper level, that is, an epigenetic level.
Stress can trigger your fight or flight response, affecting the nervous system and altering the manner in which your genes are activated in immune cells. When this occurs, your body begins to defend itself against infection or trauma that does not actually exist, thereby provoking increased gene expression and inflammation. Before long, the high level of inflammation can heighten your risk for severe health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and others.
This vicious cycle just goes to show how much our psychology can affect our biology. And what is even more mind-blowing is that these changes can be passed down from generation to generation. In other words, what your parents did can directly affect what happens to you and what you do can directly affect what happens to your children.
Living a Healthy Lifestyle to Potentially Change Epigenetics
Recent findings from animal studies are showing that trauma and stress can affect the epigenetic flags that run in families. For instance, a female rat who takes good care of her offspring by raising them in a nurturing environment helps them to better cope with stress. Conversely, offspring that are ignored experience higher levels of stress and are more likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Although studies in human beings are quite difficult to monitor and control, it has been reported a heightened level of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body can alter epigenetic mechanisms and increase one’s risk of experiencing mental health issues in the long run. These issues may even persist throughout the remainder of an individual’s life and re-establish themselves in each generation.
If we have learned anything, it is that epigenetics and stress go hand in hand. It may not be possible to change your parents’ past, however, it is possible to better understand the mechanism by which chronic stress leads to depression or other mood disorders, as well as to find new ways to prevent or treat them in the future.
“If you think of the stress system as preparing you for fight or flight, you might imagine that these epigenetic changes might prepare you to fight harder or flee faster the next time you encounter something stressful,” said Drs. James B. Potash from the John Hopkins School of Medicine. After all, the future of your children and grandchildren depends on it.
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