Stress and Genes
Contrary to what many people believe, emotional intelligence does not mean avoiding or suppressing your emotions. One of the things that emotionally intelligent people can effectively do is manage their emotions in a constructive way. In fact, not being able to express your emotions in a healthy way will almost certainly result either in the form of anxiety, pessimism, and stress or overeating, high alcohol consumption, high blood pressure, heart disease, or even cancer. And, research has constantly shown that stress directly affects our genes and our health in general. Unfortunately, stress has become one of the greatest epidemics of our times. And what is even worse is that a lot of us wear stress like a badge of honour because it makes us feel ‘significant’.
So how do negative emotions like pessimism and stress affect our health and genes?
Most of us still believe that we all get old, sick, and die eventually and that our genes dictate how our life is going to be, especially in terms of health. Well, this way of thinking is exactly what is keeping us from living healthier, longer, and more fulfilling lives. DNA is a blueprint to replicate anything our cells and body require to replace, to function, or to build, but our lifestyle choices, our emotional intelligence, and our environment actually constantly reshape our genes. We then pass these reshaped genes on to our children. The best researched ‘parts’ of our DNA that are affected by our lifestyle choices are the epigenome and the telomeres. Multiple studies have shown that both of them are strongly affected by environmental factors, such as diet, exercise, and stress. And keep in mind that our brain translates boredom and loneliness as a form of stress as well.
What is the epigenome and how does your lifestyle affect it?
The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds that direct the genome (a complete set of genes that makes you unique) what to do. Basically, the epigenome can turn genes on or off, which means that it controls the production of proteins in certain cells. And, this turning on or off genes determines the differences among cells.
The epigenome can be changed as a result of certain factors, such as your lifestyle, and some changes in the epigenome can have negative consequences, such as the development of many chronic diseases and cancers.
On the other hand, comprehensive lifestyle adjustment, including stress management, can prevent and repair epigenetic and telomere damage.
What is the telomere and how does your lifestyle affect it?
Telomeres are compared to an aglet, a sheath of plastic that stops a shoelace from fraying. Telomeres are at the end of your chromosomes, protecting them from unravelling and keeping them stable. Telomeres are maintained by telomerase, an enzyme that repairs them and keeps them healthy and long. Therefore, the activity of this enzyme is crucial to the health of telomeres.
What is lifestyle actually?
It is the way a person lives, and this includes following:
Your diet is one of the most important factors that can affect how an epigenome and telomere behave. For example, polyphenols, which are often found in plant foods such as soybeans and green tea, are generally involved in defence against ultraviolet radiation or aggression by pathogens. Epidemiological studies and associated meta-analyses strongly suggest that long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Regular exercise is another factor in your lifestyle that can affect your epigenome and telomeres. Exercising regularly has been found to result in the increase of expression of genes linked to tumour suppression. This means that the more active you are, the lower your risk of developing cancer.
Smoking and alcohol
Of course smoking cigarettes and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol have very negative effects on our genes; therefore, you simply need to commit to stop or it will kill you.
There are two type of toxins that can negatively affect our genes and make us sick. The first type is the chemicals in the air, water, food, and many other things we are exposed to daily. The second type are the ‘toxic’ people who mean well but cannot control the spread of their negative thoughts and emotions.
Stress management – Emotional Intelligence
The higher your emotional intelligence, the lower your overall stress level for a very simple reason: unless your life is in danger you should not feel truly stressed, full stop. Fear and its physiological response — stress — was created by ‘mother nature’ to protect our lives not for us to be constantly (chronically) stressed because of an unpleasant boss, someone’s criticism, breakups, size of our hips, and other not truly important things or people in our lives. The ability to recognise that something or someone stresses us excessively, then get to the bottom of what this ‘stress’ is really about (our personal story), and then deal with our problem by adding logic to deal with our feelings, can bring unbelievable results. In fact, you can achieve a state, where no matter what happens (except of course if your life is actually in danger), you will never get truly stressed. It is always our choice if we perceive an occurrence as simply unpleasant – or ‘the end of the world’- type of event.
Why should you put a maximum effort to increase your EQ?
Study after study show that stress probably has a bigger impact on our heath and our genes than any other area of our life and our lifestyle. Bear in mind that chronic stress can be caused not only by aggressive behaviours or large workload but also by things such as low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom, and inability to control one’s circumstances. And, the only treatment for all those problems is to increase our emotional intelligence, which will allow us to see everything from a different, healthier, and more constructive perspective.
Nobel Prize-Winning Research
The Nobel Prize-winning work of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn on telomeres and telomerase shows that simple persistent negative thoughts can cost us 7-18 years of our life.
Can Telomere predict our life expectancy?
We know from multiple studies that bad diet, lack of exercise, and stress seem to shorten telomeres and reduce the activity of their repairing enzyme, telomerase.
So what if my telomeres become short, you may ask. Well the thing is that the shorter your telomeres, the greater your risk of getting diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Also, as they become shorter and as their structural integrity weakens, the cells age and die quicker, and therefore you age and die prematurely.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres and telomerase, pointed out in a lecture she delivered that chronic stress and pessimism (persistent negative thoughts) significantly shorten telomeres. She found that the study’s participants who belong to the ‘high stress group’ had 50 percent lower telomerase activity and had shorter telomeres. She also concluded in her study that this was equivalent to an increase of biological ageing and shortening of life expectancy by 9 to 17 years. The shortening of telomeres was also associated with the development of multiple chronic diseases. In fact, the researchers could predict, based on telomere length, how long men (who participated in this study) with coronary artery disease will live.
The length of telomeres is now being considered as one of the predictors of our lifespan and our health. Long and healthy telomeres mean a long and healthy life; short telomeres and inactive telomerase mean reduced life expectancy and development of chronic diseases.
Can we rejuvenate our telomeres?
In a 2008 pilot study conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, after only three months of comprehensive lifestyle change, the subjects exhibited significantly increased telomerase activity. A five-year follow-up research shows that we can reverse ageing on a cellular level through lifestyle changes. In the study, which was published in the Lancet Oncology on September 17, 2013, a group of individuals made changes in their lifestyle, which included a whole food plant-based diet, moderate exercise, and stress management. Indeed, their telomeres lengthened by almost 10 percent. And, the longer their telomeres, the healthier the subjects have become, which then translated to a more satisfying and longer life.
How else does stress affect our health?
Stress is our body’s natural response to a perceived threat. This is what helped our ancestors survive; without it, they would have been eaten by animals, and we would not be here. Of course, we don’t face such threats in our modern times, but a lot of things in our everyday lives cause us stress from the traffic jam to the loss of a loved one.
When we are stressed, our body releases ‘stress’ hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline plays an important role in the fight-or-flight response by increasing blood flow to muscles (increase in blood pressure), output of the heart (increase of heart rate), pupil dilation, and blood sugar. Cortisol, on the other hand, raises sugar levels (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be non-essential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. In fact, there are over 1400 different biological and biochemical reactions to stress. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of our brain that control mood, motivation, and fear. As such, when you are exposed to stress chronically, you are giving neither your mind, your emotions, nor your body the chance to recover and to stabilise. Consequently, you are more likely to cause damage to your genes as well as to your entire body. Thus, it is very important for us to find ways to manage stress in our lives healthily, and our emotional intelligence is the most important factor in helping us with that.
In a nutshell
Low EQ/EI equals always higher than necessary stress levels, and it is often associated with low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom, lack of control over one’s life, and therefore often lack of fulfilment and purpose in life. All that can directly and indirectly affect our genes, mental, emotional, and physical health, which then affect our ageing processes and life expectancy. And, by passing on ‘bad’ genes to our children, we increase their chances of becoming sick if they choose to make the same wrong lifestyle choices that we made.
- Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease
Kanti Bhooshan Pandey and Syed Ibrahim Rizvi
- Maintenance of chromosomes by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase
- The Lancet – Oncology
Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study
Prof Dean Ornish, MD, Jue Lin, PhD, Prof June M Chan, PhD, Elissa Epel, PhD, Colleen Kemp, RN, Prof Gerdi Weidner, PhD, Ruth Marlin, MD, Steven J Frenda, MA, Mark Jesus M Magbanua, PhD, Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, Ivette Estay, PhD, Nancy K Hills, PhD, Nita Chainani-Wu, DMD, Prof Peter R Carroll, MD, Prof Elizabeth H Blackburn, PhD
- National Institute on Ageing
What happens when DNA becomes damaged?
- What is the epigenome? – Genetics Home Reference. (n.d.).
- Nutrition & the Epigenome. (n.d.).
- Epigenomics Fact Sheet. (2016, April 1).
- Institut Pasteur. (2015, November 30).
Our epigenome is influenced by our habitat and lifestyle.
- Alegría-Torres, J. A., Baccarelli, A., & Bollati, V. (2011). Epigenetics and lifestyle. Epigenomics, 3(3), 267-277. doi:10.2217/epi.11.22
- Besingi, W., & Johansson, A. (2013). Smoke-related DNA methylation changes in the etiology of human disease. Human Molecular Genetics, 23(9), 2290-2297. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddt621
- University of Missouri-Columbia. (2014, October 8). Epigenetic changes caused by binge drinking: Overconsumption of alcohol triggers inflammatory response in the liver. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 13, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141008131611.htm