Scientists have finally confirmed what they have long suspected: stress affects your genes and alters your DNA structure. Such changes to your DNA would be the result of prolonged periods of stress; studies have in fact confirmed that it is only chronic stress that leads to these chromosomal changes rather than the short, vanishing stress episodes we experience from time to time. Changes to our DNA would lead to the person experiencing certain negative physical and psychological effects.
DNA damage and Adrenaline
Studies carried out by Duke University Medical Center have shed light on the mechanisms behind the phenomenon of DNA damage. The scientists injected mice with a substance that triggered damage to the DNA in much the same way as would happen in humans consistently subjected to stress. The mice were in fact injected with a chemical that is molecularly very similar to adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and secreted when we are under stress, in situations that cause fear or when we sense a threat. Typically, once our gland begins producing adrenaline in response to any perceived threat, our glucose levels spike, we begin to sweat, our breathing increases, the heart begins pumping faster and our brain begins to work over time. Whilst our body returns to normal following a period of stress of average intensity and duration, prolonged periods mean our body spends more time “out of sync” than in a state of homeostasis where all body conditions are “normal”.
Minor damage can be physically seen in those who experience stress: they often have grey hairs, look older than they should and are often underweight or overweight. But the effects go deeper, besides wreaking psychological havoc with conditions like fatigue and depression, people who have experienced stress and anxiety for long periods might also suffer from stomach ulcers, migraines and hypertension. Pregnant women can miscarriage as a result of stress during pregnancy. Again, all this can be linked to damage caused to our chromosomes by stress.
Further to this, the studies also found that stress causes a drop in a very important tumor suppressor protein known as cellular tumor antigen p53. Throughout our lives, most of us will have a number of tumors that we will never even know we had – this is because our body has some mechanisms which control cell growth and division (oncogenes) or suppress tumors (tumor suppressor genes). We are, in other words, quite well armed to fight tumors. People that have been subjected or experienced chronic stress could be more prone to growths due to DNA damage caused by the stress which makes their levels of p53 drop.
By understanding the mechanisms and causes of DNA damage, a move towards more effective cures or ways of alleviating the damage caused to our bodies by these harmful experiences that life throws at some of us is even closer.
Karl M McDonald is a free lance writer specializing in the field of DNA and genetics. More articles by the author can be found in the article repository for http:www.easydna.co.za