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Inheritance of Stress: What is Epigenetics?

by Logan Schmaltz

February 2020

With all the new ancestry tests out there these days, everyone knows genes are what carry the information that give people a special identity and connect them with long-lost family members. Another important point is that genes have an "on" or "off" control switch for chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Everyone knows someone with those problems: a grandma, dad, sister, son, or niece. When family members of generations line up next to one another, it's easier to understand how genes that got turned "on" in a grandparent can pass on to the next generation. In a new field of science called epigenetics, which includes the study of how stress is passed down from parent to child, researchers are learning there is tons of information in genes that can be turned on or off and that stress plays a role in controlling some of the switches.

To better explain, picture a child with a set of genes that gave her brown eyes, wavy hair, a crooked smile, and her own personality. She is raised in a home where all her basic needs are met. She is loved, supported, and safe. She is happy at school and has friends. Her life isn't perfect, but she knows she will not go hungry and that her family cares about her. She is mostly surrounded by good stressors. For example, the stress she felt when she got behind on her chores and wasn't allowed to go on a trip with her friends. These are stressors that help her mind and body grow in a healthful way. She probably has a few long-term stress genes also turned on, but still her risk of getting a chronic disease is low. The genes that she carries to pass on to her future children won't have those long-term stress genes turned on either.

On the other hand, another child with the same set of gene traits: brown eyes, wavy hair, a crooked smile, and her own personality, has a different life. When she is 12 years old, her mother dies in a car accident – a high stress event. Under this high stress trigger, she goes into "survival" mode. Her long-term stress genes are turned on. She may become depressed and anxious managing the grief from the loss of her mother. If she stays in survival mode, then she is surviving, not thriving like the other girl. The same genes that turned on to help her fight stress also increase her risk of getting high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic medical conditions, since they are on too long. When she becomes a mom, she passes down the genes for high blood pressure and diabetes right along with the genes for brown eyes and wavy hair. If she marries a man that had similar stressful experiences, he may also pass those genes to their children, too.

Scientists are learning that lots of long-term stressors, such as not having enough food or money to support a family, bullying because of skin color or coming from another country, and physical or emotional abuse, can cause chronic disease as well.

Epigenetics is unfair. No one chooses who their parents are or where they are born. But scientists recently learned there are ways to undo some of what has been inherited. One way is to use positive responses to handle negative stress. This helps turn-off the long-term stress genes that have been passed down from previous generations.

One of the positive responses to bad stress is called resilience. What is resilience? It is the ability to recover from negative events. How is resilience learned? There are many ways. For example, using stress management methods during even the toughest days.

Parenting is hard. The life of a parent might feel like a never-ending cycle of high stress. The daily routine: wake up, do chores, get the kids ready for school, go to work, take the kids to activities, make dinner, do homework, go to bed, then wake up and begin it all again. A parent's stress may even increase further if they must take care of their elderly parent with memory problems as well. Science has shown that the benefit of parents taking just 10 minutes out of a busy day to focus on themselves may increase resilience. Another option is finding at least one person to talk to about problems and real feelings. Understand that kids will get in the way of self-care, but self-care is not selfish, especially when things get stressful.

Parents that take care of themselves take better care of their kids and as the old saying goes,

"Actions speak louder than words."

Remember, kids and teens also have fears and anxiety. Children need to learn how to be resilient too. Teach by example. Doing small things each day helps lower stress to encourage healing from the inside out and keeps the good things on genes in the "on" position.


About the Author

Logan Schmaltz is a third year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences who is participating in the TRHE program, Targeted Rural Health Education. The program teaches student doctors the importance of rural newspapers as partners in providing community health education. As a future rural healthcare leader, Schmaltz has written this column to provide health information for North Dakota rural communities. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.