If you knew that stress or even certain life events would negatively affect your health, would you take more proactive measures in counteracting it? From depression to distress, and especially traumatic events, our emotions affect our DNA. Consequently, our emotions impact our health. I’ll explain.
How DNA works
Our DNA contains instructions needed to “program” the molecules and proteins necessary for bodily health and development. Once our body creates new cells, they should know what they are meant to do via that programming. But, if our DNA is in some way inhibited, then our cell’s programming could be negatively affected.
Recent research was collected from victims of childhood trauma who had experienced both physical and sexual abuse. There are two markers that have been used in research to determine if and how childhood trauma impacts our DNA. Those markers are mitochondria and telomeres. The results of the study showed that the amount of mitochondrial DNA increased and the length of telomeres were shortened in victims. Let’s discuss the roles of each of these and how that would impact our physical health.
Mitochondria are structures within cells that convert the energy from food into a form that cells use to facilitate their “programming.” Each cell contains hundreds to thousands of mitochondria. Although most DNA “lives” in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria also have a small amount of their own DNA. That is the part of the DNA that we are discussing. It is known as mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA.
Now that we know what mitochondrial DNA is, we can better understand why a reduced amount could negatively affect our health. Thus, if the amount of mitochondrial DNA is reduced, then those cells are less likely to be as active. Thus, they may prove inept at doing their job.
Most impressively, researchers determined that, by testing mitochondrial DNA, it could be possible to determine whether someone has recovered from a trauma or is still processing it. In which case, we could further facilitate the healing process for that person, whether that be with counseling, medication, or yoga and meditation, which have also proved beneficial.
Telomeres are responsible for protecting our genetic data. They are attached to the end of chromosomes and make it possible for cells to divide. Geneticists have also determined that telomeres have been associated with both aging and cancer. These particular DNA strands also have another important job. Telomeres prevent chromosome ends from fraying and sticking together. Why does that matter? Because, if they become stuck together, it would jumble, thus destroying that person’s genetic information.
More importantly, telomeres already get shorter each time a cell divides. When they become too short, that cell can no longer divide. Thus, the cell essentially dies. Researchers have already associated the shortening of telomeres with cancer and a higher risk of death. Therefore, a person who has endured intense childhood trauma or abuse, and has shorter telomeres, may be more likely to die earlier.
DNA and depression
Jonathan Flint, a geneticist and lead researcher on this study, stated, “Depression might in some sense be considered a metabolic reaction to perceived stress.” This statement is particularly interesting, as the aftermath of trauma often leaves us with a subconscious “perceived stress.” I experienced this myself. If we know that this is how our bodies react, then maybe we can be more proactive in counteracting these negative emotions.
For example, after I was attacked at the age of 31, I had an obvious subconscious fear that overwhelmed my body and grossly impacted my daily life. Fortunately, I found a reiki practitioner who helped me process that fear and negative emotion. Having had this experience, I can very much understand how such trauma can impact a person’s life and body.
The fear and body’s reaction in the aftermath of such trauma feel like a physical manifestation. Your mind and body are trying to process that incident, and it is incredibly intense. You can continue on with your normal routine, as any psychiatrist will tell you to do – but your body is still fighting a battle.
Emotions impact our health conclusion
According to Science Alert, “another study showed that the effects of stress are also partly reversible.” This is very good news. If we can determine how to help these cells perform at a greater level again, we could possibly catch depression before it happens. At the very least, we could prevent reoccurrences.
The next step in understanding how our emotions impact our health is to discover the full extent of the relationship between molecular markers and depression. Flint wants to know how they change over time- before, during, and after a state of depression. He hopes to continue research in that vein. This could be incredibly impactful in treating depression as well as PTSD. We’ll look forward to the result.