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DNA Day: Decoding The Genetics Of Stress Disorders

Did you know that 50 years ago the term ‘stress’ was rarely used? The groundbreaking work of a scientist, Hans Seyle, helped define stress in terms of psychological response, as opposed to physical strain. He's regarded as the first scientist to identify "‘stress’ as underpinning the nonspecific signs and symptoms of illness. Proposing that stress was present in an individual throughout the entire period of exposure to a nonspecific demand. Seyle was able to distinguish acute stress from the total response to chronically applied stressors, terming the latter condition ‘general adaptation syndrome, which is also known in the literature as Selye’s Syndrome.

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What is stress and why is it important to manage it? 

The term ‘stress’ is in fact neutral. Stress can be broken into two categories: eustress is positive, and distress is negative.

Eustress (stress which is successfully managed) enables us to adapt easily - improving resilience and performance. Distress (stress which isn’t successfully managed) can negatively impact both your psychological and physical well being. This is the stress you need to avoid. The biggest triggers of stress in the UK according to Statista in 2020:

  • State of the economy and finances
  • Health concerns
  • Work-related stress
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Family and daily household chores

Thus in today’s fast-paced society, effective stress management is more important than ever before. A recent survey in the UK, involving 2000 participants, found that 85% of UK adults experience stress regularly with 39% of participants feeling stressed on a daily basis. 54% of these participants were concerned about the impact of stress on their health and 32% of people listed exercise as the best way to overcome stress. On average, women reported feeling stressed approximately three days more than men per month, with 42% of women saying that their stress levels are too high, compared to 36% of men. Women reported that their greatest stress came from financial concerns, whereas men reported work to be their biggest stressor.

Young adults, in the 18 to 24 age bracket, were found to have the highest stress levels of all - experiencing stress for around 12 days per month. 69% of participants in this age group reported concerns around the impact of stress on their health.

These numbers have increased due to the stresses caused by COVID-19 and all the other factors surrounding it. 

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What is the connection between genetics and stress? 

While all of us feel stressed at some point or another, some people battle with stress more frequently. This may boil down in part to genetics. Your genes contain the instructions to produce proteins that dictate how your body functions. Tiny differences in your genes, called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) affect the hormones and enzymes responsible for your psychological responses - including your stress response.

Variations in certain genes can result in an elevated response to stressful events - making some people more sensitive than others. While many factors, including your upbringing and life experiences, can affect your stress response, your genetic profile gives insight into how your DNA affects your susceptibility to stress and how you would likely handle stressful situations. Using this information, we can help you develop a personalised stress management plan to better handle the stress in your daily life.

 

There are two main genes associated with your stress response: COMT and BDNF.

When it comes to performance under pressure, there’s a sliding scale of responses. This is the partial result of Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT). The COMT gene codes for the catechol-O-methyltransferase enzyme which is important for how much dopamine is broken down in the brain. Stress results in an increase in dopamine in the brain, which in turn affects how you function cognitively. How quickly the brain can react to this increase in dopamine depends largely on the COMT gene. Your unique genetic profile tells us which version of this gene it posses so that you can better understand how your genetics affect your performance under stressful conditions.

 

BDNF is a protein that is involved with the growth of neurons and synapses, which are the connections that move information around our brains. Research has indicated that the version of the BDNF gene we have inherited from our parents can play a role in and affect our sensitivity to chronic stress. Stress can cause a reduction of the gene's activity, which leads to reduced BDNF production, and this, in turn, has an effect on the part of our brain that processes emotions. The BDNF gene has been linked to mood-related and depressive disorders, especially in those under chronic stress.

See the breakdown here about which genes are associated with your stress response.

It’s important to know how your genetic profile influences your resilience - you’ll either have a high or low genetic predisposition towards stress resilience. Awareness of a genetic predisposition to low-stress resilience helps reveal areas of focus for you to boost your mental fitness. By learning relaxing techniques to relieve stress effectively, you can lower your risk of the negative effects of stress on your health. This understanding because your stress levels also have a ripple effect on your sleep quality. 

 

Most recently with covid-19 raging on and an increase in mental health disorders, scientists are also trying to understand what correlations exist between those who develop Post-Covid Stress Disorder (PCSD) vs those who don’t. Many of those experiencing Post Covid Stress Disorder show symptoms that are often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While many factors could be at play, recent studies have shown that hospitalisation, socio-economic status, gender and the death of a loved one may increase PTSD risk. We also know from pre-COVID studies, that genetics can also partially affect your susceptibility to developing PTSD. Multiple studies have found that PTSD risk may be heritable, with evidence suggesting that genetic factors account for approximately 35% of the variance in the disorder. So experts in this field are trying to understand further if PCSD may also have an underlying genetic predisposition, along with the known environmental triggers and influence.

 

So how can you manage stress better?

What’s in the guide – 1

Along with lifestyle changes like getting enough sleep, deep breathing, setting time to practice meditation and mindfulness and etc, exercise is known to be an excellent way to manage stress and improve one’s quality of life. Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins - the body’s natural feel-good hormones which can help to manage our problems more effectively. Hence, this climate is forcing everyone to prioritise their mental health as everyday life takes an unusually challenging turn that feels out of control. Hence proactively taking control of this aspect of your life will empower you to have a better sense of your holistic health. Using exercise for better mental health is important because: 

 

  1. It Improves Stress Resilience

Poor mental health can result in a cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating negative behaviours, restricts our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to change. Regular exercise can improve blood flow to the parts of your brain involved in rational decision making and can lead to improved mental flexibility and stress resilience.

Download our Feel-Fit guide to access more practical tips for more effective stress management. 

 

  1. It protects against cognitive decline

Exercise can help protect against rapid cognitive decline as you get older. Some of the endorphins produced by exercise result in a boost in a protein called BDNF which encourages nerve cell growth in your brain. FYI your BDNF levels can also be impacted by genetics!

  1. It reduces the risk of depression

A recent study carried out by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health identified that anything over 15 minutes of steady activity per day can reduce the risk of depression by up to 26%. Exercise naturally boosts serotonin - a 'feel-good' chemical which when low, can result in depressive symptoms.

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It’s important to understand how to effectively manage stress, you can find out whether you’re a warrior or a strategist and use this insight to improve your mental and physical well-being by buying one of our kits today.

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