Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Epigenetic Impact of Stress

Being an engineer and interested in health and fitness, I read quite a bit about progress in the medical field. An area that has fascinated me for some time now is epigenetics. Before learning about epigenetics I figured that much of what we are was due to our DNA. The color of our eyes, or our hair, how much we looked like one or the other of our parents - these things were passed down to us in the DNA we received from our parents. Now I find that the expression of our genetic code depends on more than just the DNA - the way the genes “express” themselves can be altered by changes in the methylation or histone deacetylation of genes. OK - pretty technical terms - suffice it to say, it turns out that things can be added to or taken away from our genes and, in effect, turn our genes on or off.

So, while there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence, non-genetic factors can cause an organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently.

For more reading on this part follow this link.

Having gotten past the technical part while trying to keep it simple enough that eyes didn’t roll back into the head, let’s see what impact stress has on the expression of our genes.

One area that has been researched is the impact of stress on the children of women who were stressed (physically or psychologically abused) during pregnancy. Research has shown that women abused during pregnancy were significantly more likely than others to have a child with a specific gene that is methylated. This research suggests that the genetic methylation happens in the fetus in response to a mother’s stress, and the change in the expression of the child's genes persists into adolescence.

What impact does methylation of this gene have? It has been shown to increase the risk of obesity, of depression and of some autoimmune diseases. It also makes people more impulsive and aggressive—and therefore, if male, more likely to abuse the pregnant mothers of their children, thus perpetuating the whole sorry cycle.

For more reading on this section follow this link.



Today there is research focused both on the epigenetic impact of a mothers stress on her children, as well as the impact of stress on an individuals genetic expression. A quote from another article: It's becoming increasingly evident that the epigenetic changes ... could play a significant role in the brain's response to stress and the treatment of stress related diseases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder”. For more reading on this follow this link.


And, finally, why do I really give a hoot about all of this? Because it is becoming apparent that stress impacts our health not only through the flight or fight hormonal changes discussed in my previous post, but also in a much more fundamental way - changing how our genes are expressed.

Do I know that these changes are necessarily bad? No, I don’t. But, if these epigenetic changes and their impact are similar to the changes discussed in yesterdays posting from long term elevated cortisol levels - well, I am concerned.

Bottom line - stress is a problem in our lives - finding ways to reduce stress, cope with change, accept what we can’t change, fix what we can - all become very important. In my world, exercise, first and foremost, is my response to stress. And, as discussed in previous postings, doing all I can to find satisfaction and happiness in my world.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving!!! I want to quote one of my corespondents in closing: “Thanksgiving - May it never be just a day to eat and drink. We have so many great and small things for which to give thanks.”

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