Stress is part of all of our lives. Where it comes from can be different for each person but the fact of the matter is that it’s something we all have to deal with. That being said, what if there are epigenetic consequences to our stress? Can they hurt, and more interestingly, could they even help?
Negative epigenetic effects of stress
The way in which our bodies respond to stress is a relic of our evolutionary past. In order to survive, we needed to make the most out of our fight or flight response which is determined largely by how our stress hormones function. In situations of increased and regular stress, being able to command these hormones would make us more likely to survive. This is where epigenetics comes in.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have shown that exposure to stress hormones can cause permanent epigentic changes in as little as 4 weeks in animal models. The animals who were exposed to hormones showed a change in the gene Fkbp5, which has been linked to mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. Another study measured the effects of stress in rats over several generations. The stressor (in this case a food toxin) created a disturbance in how hormones related to metabolism were expressed, causing weight gain. Furthermore, the effects persisted for up to 4 generations!
Hormesis: the positive effects of stress
Interestingly enough, the effects of stress happen to go both ways. Hormesis is the process by which the body responds to a stressor, making itself less vulnerable it. This is the basic principle to gaining immunity to such things as poisons. Very useful for anyone planning to engage in a duel of wits with a Sicilian. It is also the basic principle by which your muscles adapt to the stress of going to the gym or any other physical activity. Recent research has shown that the lasting effects of hormesis can be linked to epigenetic changes.
The key to eliciting a hormetic response is to use a small dose, to space out enough time for recovery. Unfortunately, exposing oneself to chronic stress would not likely produce a positive response. However, there are a number of instances in which something ‘bad’ can produce a positive epigenetic response. One example is alcohol, which has been shown to have a positive hormetic effect on blood and cardiovascular markers when taken in moderation. Periodically fasting has also been shown to increase longevity through a similar process. The list goes on.
What we can learn from these animal studies is that stress can have very real effects on ourselves and our children. While we’ve been evolved to avoid sabretooth tigers and stampeding mammoths, the threats today are not ones we can get away from. Deadlines, social pressure and financial struggles are not something that can be run away from. Learning to cope with this stress is important if it can’t be avoided.
In addition, the positive effects of stress can be taken advantage of to affect our genetics positively. Any one of these warrants a blog post. Stay tuned for more updates on how to change your genome positively and improve the most important item on your bug out bag list.