Stress :

Stress, Behavior, and Environment Can Change DNA

Scott Johnson, The Oakland Tribune, Calif.

This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.

It has been pretty well established now that smoking can cause cancer, that poor diet and exercise can lead to obesity and heart problems, and that stress can cause physical and mental health problems. And for a long time, science has told us that each of us has a chance to start over, in a sense, that the behaviors of our parents can't or won't affect our ability to shape, to a large degree, our own futures. But a spate of research over the last few years has changed that view.

This field of research is looking at how things like changes in our behavior and the environments we live in can exert small but powerful modifications to the chemical field that surrounds our DNA. This chemical field is called the epigenome, and it surrounds our genes like an exoskeleton. Think of it as the software that helps power the hardware of our genetic makeup.

What scientists are finding is that things like stress, trauma, violence and unhealthy behaviors like smoking can change some of the chemical markers in the epigenome. When this happens, scientists say, it can turn on or off the genes that affect our health, our ability to regulate stress and our body's response to disease and pathology. What's more, these scientists say, these changes can be passed along to offspring. This is a profound realization. What it potentially means, this research tells us, is that our behavior and the environments we live in could have lasting consequences for our children, and this is the important part -- even if our children are never themselves exposed to those same situations.

So, for example, if I live in a chronically violent neighborhood and as a result I develop a high level of toxic stress and PTSD, it may change my epigenome by altering the chemical markers that sit around my genes. These changes, in turn, may result in the gene that helps me regulate stress being "turned off." This could potentially affect my ability to cope, my response to stress, my socialization skills and my response to other people. OK, fair enough. But the new research is also telling us that these changes could potentially be passed on to my offspring.

Several recent studies have also shown that the adult onset of illness, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, mental illness, anxiety and a host of other pathologies can be directly tracked to the prevalence of certain kinds of stress in childhood.

The good news is that the epigenome is flexible and dynamic, in contrast with our DNA which is hard-wired and inflexible. So just as epigenetic chemical reactions can turn certain genes "off," a change in behavior or environment can also signal to the chemicals a change of course. Genes can be turned on again. The process can be reversed or altered.

This is encouraging, of course, but the mechanics at work on a molecular level also remind us of just how important it is to think more deeply about the environments we create, especially for the most disadvantaged among us.

This research has some far-reaching consequences, which I'll be writing about more in these pages in the coming weeks. Should we think differently about the way our neighborhoods look now, because we know that they are affecting us on a molecular level, even though we can't see it? Does this raise questions about how insurance companies compensate us? What about our behavior? Are there unseen legal ramifications? And what, exactly, will our children inherit from us. And what we have unknowingly inherited from our own ancestors?

If your own neighborhood doesn't look different to you now, it probably should.

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or

(c)2012 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)

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