Listening to music on the beach

Perhaps you constantly worry about your finances. Or maybe the boss that you've been working under for several years is verbally abusive. Or it could be that a relationship with a loved one is getting tenser by the day. Stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

You might think that stress merely affects your mood temporarily or gives you a brief headache. But the truth is that chronic stress can affect your health on a much deeper level—an epigenetic level.

Epigenetics, in short, is the study of what turns genes "on" or "off," like a light switch. Many people believe that if they're born with a mutation in a certain gene that they're doomed, such as women who inherit a mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene, which increases the risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. In other words, they feel that their genetic destiny is fixed. But a growing amount of research is showing that things like stress (as well as the food you eat and any cigarettes that you smoke) can affect the way that your genes are expressed. In fact, in my upcoming book, The Gene Therapy Plan, I explain the science of epigenetics and how lifestyle changes can improve your health.

For proof that stress can affect your genes, take, for example, this 2013 study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report found that exposure to chronic stress—specifically stress that sets off a person's fight-or-flight response, which affects the sympathetic nervous system—changed the way genes are activated in immune cells. Basically, excessive amounts of stress over time got the cells fired up to fight off an infection that didn't really exist, which led to the increased expression of genes that lead to inflammation. The problem is that inflammation raises the risk for all sort of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and more. The researchers found this negative cycle to be true in both the cells of mice and the cells of humans. Studies such as this one reveal just how much our psychology can affect our biology.

The good news is that you don't have to let stress overwhelm you and take control of your genes. There are easy ways to combat chronic worrying and achieve a calmer, more peaceful state of mind. Try unwinding by doing the following every day:

• Meditate. Find a quiet space, sit in a position that's comfortable, close your eyes and inhale and exhale deeply—focusing your mind on your breath (and nothing else!). One 2014 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that doing this for 25 minutes a day for three consecutive days decreases stress.

• Listen to Music. Listening to soft, relaxing music was shown to prevent increases in self-reported anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (a stress hormone) among both men and women in a 2001 study from Journal of Music Therapy. So download some classical tunes or anything that puts you in a tranquil mood.

• Exercise. Going for a walk, jog, swim, or bike ride won't just boost your energy and keep your tummy tight—it'll also help keep stress at bay. A 2013 study from the Journal of Neuroscience found that physical activity reorganizes the brain so that it doesn't respond as much to stress.

References:

1. Powella D, Sloan E, Bailey M, Arevalo J, Miller G, Chen E, Kobor M, Reader B, Sheridan J, Cole S. Social stress up-regulates inflammatory gene expression in the leukocyte transcriptome via B-adrenergic induction of myelopoiesis, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013.

2. Creswell D, Pacilio L, Lindsay E, Brown K. Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014.

3. Knight W, Rickard N. Relaxing Music Prevents Stress-Induced Increases in Subjective Anxiety, Systolic Blood Pressure, and Heart Rate in Healthy Males and Females, Journal of Music Therapy, 2001.

4. Schoenfeld T, Rada P, Pieruzzini P, Hsueh B, Gould E. Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus, Journal of Neuroscience, 2013.

About the Author

Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D.

Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D., is a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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