This time last year, in the UK, the first 3-week lockdown had just started. The aim, we were told, was to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect the National Health Service (NHS). Roll forward a year and its clear to see that the impact of extending 3-weeks into 52 have been anything but insignificant.
Although countries may have approached lockdown differently, the stress brought on by the authorities’ draconian, totalitarian, response to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has brought many people to near breaking point. It’s broken many businesses permanently, dramatically affecting the livelihoods and lives of millions.
Vast numbers of people are struggling with fear, chronic stress and anxiety over both the presence of a new pandemic virus and the draconian covid restrictions implemented in an effort to control or contain infections
Many are unaware that deep stress changes the way our genes express themselves through the epigenetic marks applied to our genome
These epigenetic marks can be passed to future generations (transgenerational inheritance) so the pandemic might not just affect us for years or decades, it could affect future generations
Ongoing fear and chronic stress sets up altered patterns of brain activity that can lead to devastating problems especially for children
The good news is there is plenty you can do to deal with the stress of the past year
Our Health Hack video offers some powerful ways to manage stress, reduce fear and press the reset button.
It’s important to remember that at the centre of the challenges we have faced is a new coronavirus pathogen. We are hard-wired through evolution to fear disease organisms, so vast numbers of people are dealing with the double whammy of fear over their futures and fear of a pathogen. For many, this fear and 'survival' stress has been ongoing since SARS-CoV-2 forced its way into all our lives with the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic on 10th March 2020.
Little did the majority know then what was to come, and too many still don’t realise how long-lasting are the effects of extreme, long-term, chronic stress. Stress, particularly deep stress that threatens one’s survival, can become epigenetic (affecting our genes) leaving a lasting scar that can have implications for generations to come. This is an area of emerging research encompassed within the term, transgenerational inheritance.
Should I be concerned about epigenetic impacts?
Taken literally, the word epigenetic means ‘on top (epi) of your genes (genetic)’, thereby having the power to turn genes on or off, like flicking a light switch. Epigenetic marks are like little tags attached to our DNA which influence the ways in which a gene will function. As embryos, we are like a blank canvas with very few epigenetic marks. But as we grow, we accumulate more and more epigenetic marks as we interact with our different and unique environments. Critical to this process are the impacts of our nutrition, lifestyle and surrounding environment, both physical and non-physical. These epigenetic tags can change patterns of gene expression that have both positive and negative effects on our health.
For instance, the food that Mum eats when she’s pregnant, the medications she takes, the chemicals that she’s exposed to, or the stress that she’s subjected to, can all be transmitted as chemical signals through her blood stream to the foetus. Here they can lay down as epigenetic marks, genetic tags, that then influence the foetus’ genetic development by silencing or enhancing the expression of certain genes. It’s been found, for instance, that women who smoke during pregnancy have children who have a higher risk of developing asthma later on. Fathers who smoke risk significantly altering their sperm DNA patterns. Likewise, Mum’s who eat an unhealthy diet during pregnancy can generate epigenetic marks that predispose offspring towards obesity. Epigenetic marks create effects a bit like a scratched record that jumps when played.
Lifestyle decisions made today can affect future generations if the epigenetic marks are laid down on the ovum or sperm, which is how transgenerational inheritance of epigenetic marks can become a very real consequence.
What is now known is that the stress, especially chronic stress, is a lifestyle factor that creates an enormous impact on gene expression patterns, but is rarely discussed in terms of future generational impacts. Stress can cause permanent damage to the bedrock of our beings, our DNA, and change the way our bodies function.
When you add the epigenetic effects of stress to the mountain of other health and social impacts caused by lockdowns and the fear-laden government and media messaging around the virus, it’s difficult to imagine we’re not headed for a health apocalypse of one form or another. Even if you were to switch off the stress tomorrow, because governments no longer viewed SARS-CoV-2 as a threat (an extremely unlikely scenario,) the effects would likely still last decades because of the influence of epigenetic marks. A veritable holocaust that could make the pandemic of the last 12 months look like a walk in the park on a sunny day.
Something that the American Psychological Association (APA) would concur with given the findings of its 2020 survey. The APA has revealed the profound effect of the pandemic on US citizens and has sounded an alarm over the very serious health and social consequences to come in future years due to the physical and emotional toll of the past year. Yet those in authority appear to be deaf.
Hopefully we’ve got your attention! Now for the good news. Namely, that epigenetic marks, which can also accumulate after birth and affect the brain, are reversible if we take appropriate steps. You can positively influence your epigenome and, despite what you might think or where you find yourself on the stress continuum, it’s not too late to make a difference. Are you ready to dive in?
In life, stress is unavoidable, but it isn’t always negative. In acute situations stress can be protective, but too much of it can make us seriously unwell. Much is being written about the impact of covid illness and the pandemic on our mental health, but almost nothing about the epigenetic effects of long-term, deep, stress. We are hardwired in our genetic blueprint to have a healthy regard for infectious pathogens because they were a threat to survival. Hence, the stress generated by this kind of fear - fear that has been mercilessly fanned by governments - creates a very deep, survival stress. Top this with the stress of loss of income, lockdowns and loss of contact with friends and loved ones and you have a very potent generator of epigenetic marks.
Stress mobilises our immune system, getting it ready to defend us against injury or infection. It also increases levels of inflammatory messenger molecules called cytokines. Cytokines are also at the heart of serious covid disease that creates massive inflammation in the lungs. Our cytokine response is completely natural and very normal, necessary as a short-term response to help us deal with situations that could seriously affect our health or kill us. However, the body was never designed to continue in this inflammatory phase with so many circulating cytokines for so long. The result is a diminished and exhausted immune function unable to mount an appropriate response when you need it most.
This is the kind of deep, perpetual stress that has the potential to create epigenetic marks on our DNA, creating altered gene expression that may extend to transgenerational changes depending on the genes involved.
Passing it on
Children learn by osmosis – by copying and mimicking the actions of parents and key authority figures – as well as by absorbing mass consciousness from the world around them. This is what creates what we refer to as ‘conditioning’, which dictates the way our children go on to act in later life.
Children are now raised in an environment laden with fear, taught to fear almost everything, including their nearest and dearest humans and deprived of the normal socialisation that is so integral to the way our brains learn and evolve. There’s an old saying in neuroscience (Hebb’s rule of synaptic plasticity) that states, “neurons that fire together wire together”. This means that the more you run a particular neural circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. Hence, if we repeatedly link actions and emotions, then these are forever wired into our brains. Like creating a furrow in our neuroplasticity that we repeatedly plough into deep troughs. Imagine what we are creating in the brains of the young of today? Now consider the impact that this may have on the future as the young of today as they step into positions of leadership tomorrow?
But it’s not only our children who are being affected. The impact of the emotional trauma during the past year on those of childbearing age cannot be underestimated.
Stress solutions to right epigenetic wrongs
Rather than being disillusioned by what you’ve read in this article, we hope it’s profoundly empowering to know that you have the power to influence your genes for the better — and create a better future for your loved ones, perhaps including your children and grandchildren.
Stress management strategies offer mental health respite, but also relieve pressure on your immune system and reduce the damage to the DNA by changing epigenetic marks.
Our health hack video below offers some powerful ways to help you manage your stress, drop any fear and push the reset button. Every step you take towards mindfulness, peace and tranquillity is a step closer to a more positive gene expression with the power to help you in the here and now — but more importantly for future generations.