Understanding stress and genetics

A quick summary:

The association between stress, anxiety and mental health is well versed.

With the fast pace of modern-day life seemingly accelerating at an experiential rate, we must now ask ‘is stress genetic’ and ‘if so, what can we do about it?’

To answer this, we must understand stress in more depth.

This will then help us understand the different types of stress and how their genes may affect our  response, which will then help stress management in the workplace.

Essentially, there are 3 types of stress.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is common in the daily lives of employees but is usually short lived.

From running for the bus  to receiving an angry email,we can encounter the effects of acute stress from a variety of situations, but - usually – it is harmless

Short-term stress has a variety of symptoms  such as:

  • Headaches, neck and back pain
  • Heart burn, digestion problems, constipation
  • Increased anger, depression and anxiety
  • Increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, problems relaxing/sleeping

Episodic acute stress

Episodic acute stress is caused by recurring episodes of acute stress People who have busy working or family lives, or cannot quite get the work life balance, often fall into this category.

Episodic acute stress has a variety of symptoms , such as:

  • Muscle tension, tension in shoulders, headaches and migraines.
  • Higher risk of colds and flu, as your immune system will be affected.
  • Increased risk of anxiety, depression and a negative effect on mental fatigue.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is the most severe form of stress, as a pronounced stress response over an extended time period will damage both physical and mental health As mentioned, when your stress levels rise, they will release the hormone cortisol, which is responsible for a whole variety of metabolic functions, such as regulating your thyroid hormone.

The thyroid regulates nearly every major metabolic function in the body, and as such, a poor functioning thyroid can have a detrimental effect on nearly every area of health. Multiple examples of poor thyroid function include weight gain, reduced metabolic rate, fatigue, feeling depressed or moody, dry hair and skin.

But how do genetics come into play?  Well, genes actually predispose them to a variety of stress outcomes.

Stress &  Pressure

Pressure is the perception that one may have of external factors affecting life. Many people often conclude that they are stressed due to the pressures placed upon them from finances, friends or family, perceived duty and work. How one responds to the situation may differ due to their gene variations and so translating this result will lead to a superior understanding of oneself.

Stress &  Memory

Acute stress may cause a sudden loss of recall, which can come at a critical time (think deadlines, meetings, tests, etc.). Chronic stress might also lead to an inability to actually form new memories, which - again - can be detrimental if you are  revising, practicing for an event, or meeting new people.

Our genes play a role in this response and understanding this may help you put certain measures or protocols into place to reduce your stress levels and therefore benefit your  memory.

Stress Mitigation

The way we deal with stress is very  important. Methods of stress reduction  may include breathing exercises, meditation, eating certain foods, going to the gym or stretching your body f However, some people are more likely isolate themselves when chronically stressed. Extensive research has shown that it is better to talk with others instead of being alone. There has also been some correlation between those who are more likely to isolate themselves and certain genetic variants.

Stress leading to physical symptoms

Stress can lead to a number of physical symptoms. Acute stress can cause tremors, muscle twitches, sweating, flushing, increased heart rate, skin itching, headaches and more.

Chronic stress can cause increased blood pressure, muscle aches and can lead to many  diseases such as diabetes, obesity and migraines. Genetic variants are linked to how we may respond to stress from a physical perspective.

Stress & the Heart

One major physical effect of stress is the strain it puts on the heart  Stress can affect the heart in both a chronic and acute sense and these could have the same or different symptoms, with certain genetic variants being linked to how the heart may be affected by stress.

Caffeine &  Stress

Caffeine is a stimulant and as such can help to “perk” someone up if they are feeling fatigued. Caffeine, like all drugs, affects people in different ways and as such its effects are  subjective in times of stress. In general, caffeine will increase heart rate, and this may be negative whilst in a stressful situation.

The above highlights the potential impact of stress and thus our need to effectively prevent or reduce stress. One of the keys to combating this is firstly knowing that you may be genetically predisposed to having a specific outcome, this would hopefully provide some reassurance that what you’re feeling is normal. Once you  have made the realisation that your genes encode  a specific outcome, you  can mitigate their effect with certain tweaks to your diet, exercise and lifestyle.

A few examples of how you can change their lifestyle would include exercise, as it increases the expression of gene BDNF, which will improve cognitive performance, memory and help alleviate anxiety and the physical symptoms of stress. 15 minutes a day may be all you need to help.

You  could also look to include more vitamin C, as studies have shown that it can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system.

Top 5 Foods Rich in Vitamin C

  • Papaya                     1 medium     168.08mg
  • Bell Peppers            1 cup              117.48mg
  • Broccoli                    1 cup               101.24mg
  • Brussels Sprouts     1 cup                96.72mg
  • Strawberries            1 cup                84.67mg

There are also a handful of other nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and calcium that can dramatically decrease psychological distress, and reduce your employees overall stress levels as well.

For more information and insight into your DNA, explore Muhdo on Heka today.