Stress is something that we are all faced with today. A study conducted in 2018 by the Mental Health Foundation found that an estimated 74% of the UK adult population is experiencing stress that seems overwhelming for them.
Long-term exposure to chronic stress causes many adverse events in the body and has been associated with both psychological and physiological complications. A recent advancement was made in scientific research when researchers linked higher levels of stress to certain gene-related changes. This breakthrough is now being further investigated to help medical scientists identify new ways to target common mental health conditions, including major depressive disorder.
What Does Epigenetics Mean?
Epigenetics is a term that is more commonly used today – and this is a particular term cited in the latest study that made a breakthrough linking stress to genetic changes. The term “epigenetics” generally refers to cases where certain factors – such as the presence of stress in this particular situation – would lead to a modification in the expression of a gene within the human body, or the body of a specific animal subject used in a study.
The alteration in the gene’s expression causes cells to read the gene in a different manner. Epigenetics does not refer to alterations to the actual code of a gene – but rather just the way that the gene is expressed toward proteins, cells, and other parts of the human body.
What Exactly Is Stress?
Stress is a word that we hear a lot today – but do you truly understand what stress is? Did you know that both positive and negative factors can cause the body to respond in a similar way – by releasing a specific set of chain reactions, leading to the secretion of certain chemicals that enter the blood and perform certain functions?
In basic terms – stress is really the response that the human body has when there is a demand. There are many different situations that cause this response in the body – being in physical danger is one, but dealing with deadlines at work can be another.
The Many Complications Of Chronic Stress
Stress has both physical and psychological effects on the human body. While an acute response to a stressful situation tends to have a temporary effect on the secretion of hormones like cortisol, chronic exposure to stress is known to contribute to a large range of different complications.
If you constantly find yourself under stressful situations and suffer from chronic stress, then you are likely to start experiencing jaw clenching, headaches, and pain may also become a problem in your life. You may find that you start grinding your teeth. Some people may experience an increase in sweating, dry mouth, lightheadedness, and even sometimes stuttering.
Stress has also been linked with complications in the immune system. What this means is that stress can weaken your immune system, leading to frequently experiencing colds and the flu, or being at a higher risk of infections.
In addition to these physiological effects that stress tends to have on the body, there are psychological complications that are important to note as well. Examples include the development of anxiety disorders. Depression is also more common in people with too much stress, and so are mood disorders, excessive worrying, and nervousness.
People who stress a lot also find it difficult to sleep in many cases. Insomnia, on the other hand, has been linked to many adverse health effects. Insufficient sleep leads to problems such as inflammation, issues with the circadian rhythm, and an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity. Furthermore, insomnia is also linked to a higher incidence of mood disorders, emotional distress, cognitive impairment, memory problems, and a reduction in overall performance.
Study Links Stress To Changes In Genes
Here, we want to switch our focus to a recent breakthrough that was made by a team of researchers. The particular research study found that there were certain changes in the DNA of laboratory mice.
In the past, studies have found that there are certain changes that occur with the DNA letter “C” that occurs in stressful situations. The particular changes that occur are known as methylation – three hydrogen molecules and one carbon atom are added to the end of the DNA code or letter. This eventually causes the gene to be shut off momentarily.
The process is referred to as epigenetics – this is a process where DNA is modified just in such a way that genes, which are subsections of the body’s DNA, are just read in a different way. The actual letter of the genes or DNA strands is not changed in any way through epigenetics.
DNA strand with the letter "C" is also known as Cytosine. The study that confirmed the changes related to DNA "C" strands, which is methylated in such a way that an added -CH3 combines with the strand, can cause issues with the method in which proteins are able to bind to the DNA in the human body properly. Furthermore, this particular methylation process also causes problems with gene activity.
Now, with the latest breakthrough, it was noted that stress might also lead to changes in other DNA strands – particularly those genes that have the “A” letter. It was previously found that N6-methyladenine is present in bacterium species – this particular DNA epigenetic modification is what contributes to the defense mechanism that is seen when bacteria are exposed to viruses.
Researchers now discovered that a similar epigenetic change occurs in cases where laboratory mice are exposed to stressful situations. In the study conducted on a group of mice in a laboratory setting, there were DNA changes to genes with the letter “A."
At the moment, research data surrounding this particular topic is very limited. Scientists have only now discovered these particular effects are present in mammals and need to conduct further research now. The next step is likely for scientists to determine if the same effects would be noted among human subjects – this, in turn, would provide medical experts with new ways to assist in developing drugs that may target mental health issues that are closely related to these particular DNA changes, as well as the way that stress particularly affects the body.
What Affects Gene Expression And Epigenetics
There are several lifestyle factors that are known to have an effect on gene expressions and ultimately lead to changes within the body’s epigenetics – meaning that genes are read in different ways than they should be by systems and cells.
We now know that stress might have an important impact on our genes – and a bad influence to be more particular. With this in mind, it is crucial to consider stress management techniques that could potentially help a person better cope with the stressors in their life.
Some effective stress management techniques that you could try out to take control of your life and reduce the potential adverse effects that stressors may have on your genes include:
- Improve your time management skills – a jam-packed schedule that is too difficult to handle causes an increase in stress.
- Try out some relaxation techniques – both yoga and meditation are highly effective.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out for help – this could be from your friends, from family members, or from a professional such as a psychologist.
- Take some time off from work and other activities in your life that may be causing you too much stress.
- Try a few hobbies – whether it is painting or you find that music helps you relax.
Stress is not the only factor that affects gene expression and the process of epigenetics in the human body. There are other factors that you need to be aware of too.
Sleep is another important factor that we need to take into account here. According to the Sleep Doctor, over 700 different genes may be adversely affected by sleep deficiency. It is also known that insufficient sleep contributes to many other health issues in the general population, as we have noted earlier on in this post.
Exercise also has an impact on gene expression. In one study, scientists found that exercise seems to especially affect the gene expression profile of the white blood cells that are found within the human body. It is known that white blood cells have an effect on the expression of many genes in the body.
Furthermore, it has also been found that diet may affect gene expression and DNA in particular. For example, some natural compounds may assist in slowing down damage to the body’s DNA. Additionally, it has also been found that some particular natural compounds might even have the potential to reverse existing DNA damage. Examples of such compounds include the epigallocatechin gallate found in green tea and the resveratrol that is found in wine. Sulforaphane in broccoli and the curcumin content in turmeric may also be useful in protecting the DNA of the human body and assist in reducing damage.
On the other hand, it is known that there are also certain dieting habits that can hurt the DNA. This especially includes high blood glucose levels – which is induced by the refined carbohydrates and high sugar content that is found in the modern diet.
How Epigenetic Coaching Can Be A Useful Aid
With advances in research showing how stress and other lifestyle factors could be changing the way genes are expressed in the human body, a great concern is raised regarding the potential complications of these issues. Many people are unaware of how they can adjust their life in order to benefit their genes and the epigenetics in their body – and without the proper knowledge, it can be hard to make the right changes for a healthier overall set of genes and DNA.
This is where epigenetic coaching can come in handy. For the general population, epigenetic coaching can be a useful way to understand how genes work in the body thoroughly. Experts in the field of epigenetics and gene expressions, in general, can help an individual understand how they are currently affecting their genes, what lifestyle factors need to be changed, and what they can do to become healthier by altering their gene expressions in a positive way – instead of allowing stress and other factors to cause health problems.
HBG Recommended Products:
- "Mental health statistics: stress" via Mental Health Foundation
- "Stress Effects" via The American Institute of Stress
- Medic, Goran et al. “Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption.” Nature and science of sleep vol. 9 151-161. 19 May. 2017, doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864
- "Mysterious DNA modification seen in stress response" via Woodruff Health Sciences Center
- "Stress Management" via WebMD
- "Lack of sleep disrupts our genes" via The Sleep Doctor
- Exercise affects the gene expression profiles of human white blood cells. Petra Büttner, Sandy Mosig, Anja Lechtermann, Harald Funke, and Frank C. Mooren. Journal of Applied Physiology 2007 102:1, 26-36