Does Stress cause changes in your genes?

Does Stress cause changes in your genes? image

Does Stress cause changes in your genes?

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”

- Leonard Bernstein

It seems ridiculous that in the second month of the year we have to write about stress. Prevention is better than cure, and now that you have planned your year, wrote down your goals and you are busy working as hard as you do, I would like you to manage your stress. Stress may alter your gene expression, and some are more prone to the effects of stress than others.

3 Hormones that regulate stress

During stressful periods your body produces stress hormones called glucocorticoids, which affect many systems in your body, your breathing, muscles, digestion, mood, sleep, etc. These effects are orchestrated by the HPA-axis, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

There are mainly 3 hormones involved in your stress response, namely adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Each one of these hormones play an important role in your survival, but prolonged stress in our concrete jungle may have ill effects, not only on your health but on the expression of your genes.

Hormones act as messengers, taking information to glands, nerves, muscles, the brain and as we now know, also your genes.


Adrenaline, often referred to as the fight or flight hormone is secreted from your adrenal glands, located at the top of your kidneys. It increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and increases energy production.

We have all experienced the effects of adrenaline, it is involved in that initial feeling of stress, when you quietly walk into the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon thinking your parents are asleep, helping yourself to another piece of chocolate and as you close the door your mother stands behind you! Your heart starts to pound, your muscles are tense, you just want to run, you may even start to sweat. That's adrenaline.


Norepinephrine is the hormone that helps you focus, it makes you more awake, it directs blood flow towards essential areas, e.g. your muscles when you have the flee from your mom.


Cortisol also produced by the adrenals; it takes a little longer to come into effect but can be lifesaving in certain situations. Prolonged stress however and continuous production of cortisol may have a detrimental effect on your body. High cortisol levels may suppress your immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar levels, decrease libido, produce acne, and contribute to obesity.

Change your stress, save your genes

Doctors at the John Hopkins university School of Medicine are investigating the effects of long term stress on your genetic expression. Although the study is still in initial phases and has not been confirmed in humans, they found that chronic exposure to stress hormones may alter the expression of your HPA axis genes and may lead to reduced methylation (DNA methylation is an epigenetic modification, it changes how the gene is expressed and this may be carried over to new cells, it does not change the sequence of DNA, but rather the function of the cell) and may therefore change future behaviour and increase risks for mood disturbances and anxiety and reduce the ability to manage stress.


What this means is, chronic stress may change the expression of our genes and may make us more aware, ready to fight harder and flee faster. This may have been a positive adaption if we still lived in the jungle, however, chronic stress such as work deadlines that we are not able to manage may increase your risk of developing depression and other mood disorders.

It is however not possible or healthy to live without stress, therefore my best advice, “flee”! High intensity exercise for short intervals mimics fleeing from stress, reduces the cortisol levels and has a positive effect on gene expression.

8 Ways to reduce stress

1.      Plan your week ahead.

2.      Prioritise your tasks.

3.      Ignore what is not essential. This book was recommended to me, maybe it is worth a read. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

4.      Do 4 sets of 20 seconds high interval training per day, i.e. get on a bike, spin as hard and fast as you can for 20 seconds, rest and repeat 4 times. Please consult a professional if you are not sure if you can do this.

5.      Make sure you get enough sleep, 7 - 8 hours.

6.      Eat nutrient rich foods and avoid takeouts and high fat foods.

7.      Supplement with a quality Vit B-complex during times of stress.

8.      Meditate, pray, or make sure you have some quiet time.

For more information of gene testing and how it can benefit you, please feel free to contact me, Jacky Hattingh.


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