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Surprising Research Shows How Stress, including Social Stressors, Negatively Impacts Genetics

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Researchers at UCLA are exploring the question of how adversity in life influences our DNA. What they’ve found so far will surprise you. 

The genes you have inherited from your mother and father are fixed for the most part, and don’t change. If you have the lactose intolerant gene, you will always be lactose intolerant. You’ll still be able to eat or drink fermented milks since fermenting removes the milk sugars as the bacteria consume them, but drinking milk and eating ice cream will most likely upset your stomach.

While your genes are stable, your genome is not stable. The genome is the complete set of all your genes found in every cell. Your genome changes rapidly! In fact, it can change in a matter of 20-30 minutes and it changes significantly over time as we age. You’ll have a different genome in the womb than you will at 40, 50 and 60, etc. As we age, our genes become damaged, and this damage changes the expression of our genes. DNA damage is not preventable, but it can be kept to a minimum and even repaired and reversed.


Researchers worldwide are collaborating to find out what causes and repairs DNA. It’s the root cause of diseases, aging and especially cancer.

Life is full of challenges – minor and major—and our perception of adversity—is playing a key role in damaging our DNA. Minor social experiences—like being late for an event—or major ones—like a job loss, a new baby, divorce, living in a war zone, or a dangerous home situation—negatively impact our genes. Many believe that the greatest adversity occurs when a child lacking adequate adult support grows up with chronic neglect, emotional or physical abuse including living with violence, mental illness or drug and alcoholism. The accumulated burden of poverty is a severe social stressor.

Yes, we can eat the perfect diet and be physically active but we all experience life with some degree of hardship. Dr. George Slavich and Dr. Stephen Cole of UCLA have uncovered some revolutionary information about which genes are damaged by social adversity. To date, they have tied hardships in life to genes involved with the innate immune system – the ancient part of your immune system that recognizes pathogens and responds immediately to infection by creating inflammation. 

Genes don’t affect disease risk unless those genes that create disease are turned on. In other words, genes that cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or autoimmune conditions need to remain silent and turned off. 

Thousands of immune system genes are also at work helping to prevent disease and fight infections. The UCLA researchers found that genes involved in fighting viral infections decrease in activity with hardships or social conflict or rejection. 

Our brain and immune system calibrate themselves to social and physical situations. How you experience diversity, how you handle it and what you think about the situation as it’s happening—and long afterwards—is affecting your DNA and lowering your ability to fight viral infections. 

Do you find yourself dealing with viral infections especially in the winter such as upper respiratory infections (sore throat, sinusitis, and the common cold), influenza and pneumonia?  

Are you one of the many millions who suffer from repeated herpes infections, shingles and measles?

While your doctor can test your blood for antibodies to a virus, blood tests can only test for a single virus at a time and doctors must know which virus they’re looking for, so they can look for a specific set of antibodies. But is there a way to quantify a lifetime of stress to determine if your ability to resist viral infections is reduced? 

Fortunately, yes. Everyone talks about stress, but nobody measures it until now.

Ideally, your practitioner should be looking at the results of this stress tool in combination with your own genetics. Genetic variants in genes such as MAO-A, COMT and BDNF can tell you how well you deal with perceived and real stress.  For example, people with a particular variant of the serotonin transporter gene were not as well-equipped to deal with stressful life events.

All experiences go through the brain. Our brain and immune system appear to have developed the ability to scan social conflict or rejection—which translates to being isolated from the herd. Not only is this emotionally painful, it’s life-threatening as well. Without the protection of the “herd,” our existence is at risk. But, now we know that our genes are also affected. The genes that increase inflammation and the genes that protect us from viral infections are also suppressed.

With the human ability to imagine how an interaction will go, we can conjure up social actions in our mind that can be as real as the actual act. If you think social relationships are going to be wonderful, that you are loved and appreciated, then you alter how your immune system responds and alters the action of your DNA.

Basically, you have the great ability to affect the immune system by what you think. Are you ruminating on negative experiences and can’t let them go? The UCLA researchers have found that mindfulness based stress reduction, yoga, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are the “epigenetic workarounds” (or interventions) that have beneficial outcomes.

Important to Remember:

***Genes that fight infection are just as important as genes that prevent infection.

***A strong inflammatory response is critical for survival but immediate and chronic, long term stressors damage our DNA.

***You are affecting your immune system and putting yourself at risk for viral infections by what you think.

***Social adversity, like social rejection, increases activity in inflammation-promoting genes and decreases our antiviral response genes. Basically, inflammation increases throughout the body and the activity of the genes that fight against viruses are decreased.

***Yoga, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) used as mindfulness based stress reduction are interventions that have beneficial effects.

 

References

Slavich, GM, Shields, GS. Lifetime Stress Exposure and Health: A Review of Contemporary Assessment Methods and Biological MechanismsSocial and Personality Psychology Compass 11(8):e12335 · August 2017. DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12335.  

UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.  Slavich & Cole Reveal How Social Experiences Affect Our Genes and Health.  UCLAStressLab.org.  

Slavich GM, Cole SW. The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics. Clinical Psychological Science. 2013;1(3):331–348. doi:10.1177/2167702613478594

American Psychosomatic Society.  77th Annual Scientific Meeting “BODY to MIND.” Abstracts. March 6-9, 2019, Vancouver, BC.  

Slavich GM, Toussaint L. Using the stress and adversity inventory as a teaching tool leads to significant learning gains in two courses on stress and health. Stress Health. 2014;30(4):343–352. doi:10.1002/smi.2523

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