7 Nov, 2018

Does Stress have a genetic link?

Is there any evidence to suggest that stress runs in families?

For decades, work has gone into establishing the ways in which genetics contribute to every aspect of human life. Analysing and interpreting the genome of a single individual can reveal a diagnosis of ongoing disease, prediction of disease susceptibility, or the existence of certain traits such as taste preferences, or behaviour. Now scientists are looking to determine if genes can influence stress responses.

How do we feel stressed?

Stress has played an important role in our evolution. It provides us with the biological response we need to ensure we're ready to make potentially life-saving decisions.

This short-term stress response has definately been strongly selected for throughout the history of humans. Imagine going back a few thousand years and finding a person who does not have a stress response, about to be attacked by a bear - it's likely they wont survive to pass on their genes to the next generation. However, for modern humans, the stress we face on a daily basis is rarely life-threatening. When we refer to stress, most of us now think about chronic stress or anxiety. Right now, we’re working hard to find out why we feel this way, whether some people are more prone to being stressed than others and if we have any control over it.

To understand stress, we need to know what happens in our bodies to make us feel it; when faced with a threatening situation, your body reacts with a surge in key hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones mediate your stress response and are responsible for the burst of energy you feel at times of high stress. When you are under chronic stress, these hormones remain elevated, leading to a long list of unpleasant symptoms, including headaches, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety.

Genes that have been linked to stress

A large number of studies have been conducted on the genetics of stress. Unsurprisingly, many of the genes associated with stress response are involved in the production or regulation of key hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. A well-studied genetic variant in the COMT gene, which is involved in the breakdown of dopamine, has been linked to variations in susceptibility to stress. The letter A at this position is associated with higher dopamine levels, and greater vulnerability to stress.

The physiological and psychological response to stress is extremely complex and involves multiple hormonal reactions. Although some studies have shown our genes can influence stress responses, other factors, such as our environment or upbringing can play a significant role. As is the case with most complex behaviours, your genes are only one part of the story.

Find out whether you carry these genes

Amongst other factors, such as personal history or environment, genes could play a significant role in how people respond to stress. As of yet, no single gene has been identified in connection to stress. However, a number of studies conducted have revealed genes that may predispose individuals to chronic stress.

We cover stress and these genes in more detail in our free personalised stress reports - find out more here.

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