Stress affects 90% of people, and we know it harms our mental and physical health. Stress can affect the activity and function of our genes. It does this through ‘epigenetic’ changes, which turn some of our genes on and off, although it does not change the DNA code. But why do some people respond more poorly to stress, while others cope with it under pressure?
Past research has identified strong social bonds and found a sense of belonging as a means of maintaining strong physical and mental health. Social support means having a network that is with you in your time of need. It can come from natural sources such as family, friends, partners, pets, coworkers, and community groups. Or from formal sources such as mental health experts. My new study, published today in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, shows for the first time that these positive effects have been observed on human genes as well.
DNA code is inherited from its parents
Having supportive social structures can overcome some of the detrimental effects of stress on our genes and health through the process of epigenetics. The findings suggest that the DNA we are born with is not necessarily our destiny. What is Epigenetics? Our genes and our environment contribute to our health. We inherit our DNA code from our parents, and it does not change during our lives. Genetics is the study of how the DNA code acts as a risk or protective factor for a particular trait or disease. Epigenetics is an additional layer of instructions on top of DNA that determines how they affect the body.
This layer can modify the DNA chemically without changing the DNA code. The word epigenetics is derived from the Greek word ‘epi’ which means top. This additional layer of information occurs on top of the gene and the surrounding DNA. It acts like a switch, turning genes on or off, which can affect our health as well. Epigenetic changes occur throughout our lives due to various environmental factors such as stress, exercise, diet, alcohol and drugs. For example, chronic stress can affect our genes through epigenetic changes which in turn can increase the rate of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.
New technologies now give researchers the opportunity to collect a biological sample (such as blood or saliva) from a person and measure epigenetics to better understand how our genes respond to different environments. Measuring epigenetics at different times gives us the opportunity to learn more about which genes are changed by a particular environment. What did we study? My study examined both positive and negative factors that drive an individual’s response to stress and how this changes the epigenetic profile of genes.
How the epigenetics of genes change after exposure to stress
Certain groups of people are more likely to encounter stress as a part of their routine work, such as emergency responders, medical workers, and police officers. Therefore, my research team and I studied 40 Australian first-year paramedical students on a two-point scale – before and after exposure to a potentially stressful event. The students provided saliva samples for DNA and filled out questionnaires detailing their lifestyle and health at both points in time. To better understand epigenetic changes before and after exposure to stress, how genes’ epigenetics change after stress exposure, the various social and psychological factors that affect cause epigenetic changes.
We found that stress affected epigenetics and led to an increase in distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms in the participants. However, students who had strong social support did not have more severe stress-related health consequences. Students with a strong sense of belonging to a group, organization, or community deal with stress better and have fewer negative health outcomes after exposure to stress. Both of these groups of students showed fewer epigenetic changes in genes that were changed as a result of stress. COVID has made us more isolated. The COVID pandemic has created enormous psychological and emotional burden for people due to uncertainty, altered routines and financial pressures.
Acts as a protective factor against the effects of stress
In Australia, rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have increased since the start of the pandemic. One in five Australians have reported a high level of psychological distress. The pandemic has further isolated us, and our relationships have become more distant than ever, which has had a profound impact on social interactions and belonging. My study sheds light on how family and community support, and a sense of belonging, influence our genes and act as a protective factor against the effects of stress. In such unprecedented and stressful times, it is important that we build and maintain strong social structures that contribute to improving our physical and mental health.