How do you react to stress?
If you’re stuck in traffic, do you swear at other drivers or pound the steering wheel? When you have an argument, do you pound the wall?
Or, if the boss chews you out, does your pulse race as you’re boiling inside?
Those are all signs that stress is harming your well-being.
In those kinds of circumstances, besides ruining your mood, stress is wreaking havoc on the genes in your cells. This is a new discovery, with important implications. . .
We’re so used to daily stress, it can seem like a normal part of life. It shouldn’t be. Research now shows this kind of constant pressure can travel deep into your cells and actually change the way your genetic material behaves.
The end result, if you don’t control it, can be more inches around your waist and serious illness.
Studies looking into these genetic alterations are now focusing on what are called epigenetic effects – the way in which stress doesn’t change your basic DNA, but shifts the way the genes function or “express.”
Your genetic material doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and the future of your health is not predetermined. Events in your life, and your lifestyle habits, exert a powerful influence on how genes go about their business.
Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for instance, shows that stress directly affects the functions of what are called microRNA in your cells.
When scientists first began unraveling the substances that make up our DNA, they thought microRNA were “junk” DNA — leftover genetic material inherited over the span of generations that had lost its original function, whatever it might be, like all the stuff we store in basements, garages or attics that we haven’t used in years.
But now they know microRNA are involved in processes that can lead to cells becoming insulin-resistant (a first step toward developing diabetes) and foster metabolic problems that lead to putting on extra pounds.2
These changes in gene expression can also impact your immune system and its ability to fend off illness.
A study at the University of California at San Diego shows that a stressful event produces epigenetic effects that alter the functions of the parts of the immune system known as innate immunity (the body’s all-purpose anti-disease response system) and adaptive immunity (cells that are specialized to respond to particular disease threats).
In these tests, the scientists found that stress-induced immune responses were similar to those you might expect in somebody who has been infected with disease-causing microbes.3
“The immune response to stress is similar to the response to pathogens,” says researcher Nadejda Beliakova-Bethell. The long-term result, she warns, can make you more susceptible to getting sick.
“… [C]hronic stress or infection results in the exhaustion of the immune system, making it less effective at responding to new stressful events or new pathogens,” she says.
She further explains that if you’re always stressed-out the negative effects add up over time, affecting your body in the same way that always being sick would wear it out.
One of the best ways to cut back on stress is to employ brief daily sessions of mindfulness, a concept that embraces yoga, gentle stretching, meditation and even listening to relaxing music. A study at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State found that about two months of mindfulness training using these practices helped ease the chronic stress experienced by staff assigned to a surgical intensive care unit.4
Research like this — along with studies that show meditation can produce epigenetic changes that lower inflammation in the body5 — reinforce the importance of getting rid of stress before it gets rid of you.
Your local YMCA may be a good place to look for inexpensive – or free – courses on these types of stress reduction techniques. And of course these days there’s an abundance of yoga classes.