Stress produces changes in the expression of our DNA, the deoxyribonucleic acid material that determines what we inherit from our parents.  Our genetic material nicely stores information that has survival value for the human species, like intelligence, but it also incorporates the effects of stress.

Most rural people and those involved in agriculture have inherited inclinations to observe our surroundings carefully to survey the best crop-growing conditions, the most prolific plants and animals, and to pursue acquisition of whatever it takes to be successful producers.  

We don’t understand well enough how stress harms our DNA and what we can do to reduce its damaging effects.  This column expands on the article I wrote in mid-May this year about the new field of epigenetics and how our experiences affect our genetic expression.  

Harmful effects of stress on our DNA and factors that reduce its damage were described in the October 2014 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, by Stacy Lu about the research of Dr. Elissa Epel and her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco.

As the article indicates, stress shortens telomeres, a component of DNA sequences that protects the end of each chromosome from deterioration or fusion with adjoining chromosomes.  Rearrangement or assimilation of telomeres can shorten our lives and lead to cancer and other abnormalities because the replication of normal cells is replaced by damaged cells.

The two greatest factors that affect telomere length are aging and stress.  We can’t stop aging but we can considerably control our stress and cortisol production.  

Chronic stress increases cortisol production, which diminishes the enzyme telomerase and results in shorter telomeres to protect our chromosomes, thereby harming our genetic material.  Moderate cortisol can beneficially slow our metabolism, but excessive cortisol endangers telomeres.

A baby’s intrauterine environment is shaped by the mother’s health, according to the Monitor article.  If a distressed pregnant mother secretes large amounts of cortisol, the telomeres of her baby’s DNA may be already shortening.  Exposure to excessive stress prior to pregnancy can also reduce the future mother’s telomeres, which are then passed along to her offspring.  

Fathers also can shorten the telomeres of their offspring through stress and environmental exposures to harmful substances like certain insecticides and alcohol that may affect their sperm.  This may help explain why alcoholic fathers increase their offspring’s chances to also become alcoholics.  

That’s also why fathers, and mothers, who were exposed to such distressing experiences as domestic violence and prisoner-of-war camps before and during pregnancy, are more likely to have distressed children who are prone to health issues.

What reduces the harm severe stress causes to our DNA?  Reproducing with a non-stressed partner helps the stressed parent and their offspring.  Well-adjusted spouses help tense spouses relax and usually are good parents who provide healthy genetics and positive role models for their partners and children.

But don’t depend on marrying a healthy partner and having children together to solve the genetic problems, because such couplings seldom occur.  Preferably, focus on learning how to manage stress and to behave in healthy ways with a mate and children.

As it turns out, aerobic exercise is probably the best antidote to stress dysregulation, according to Dr. Eli Puterman, a colleague of Dr. Epel.  Vigorous–but not excessive exercise–produces serotonin and reduces release of the excessive cortisol that is linked with inflammation, and insulin and oxidative cellular dysregulation.

Positive social relations are of great benefit.  As the Monitor article suggests, figure out how stress affects your life and improve your coping abilities.  

Get to work learning skills to pass along to your children and to treat a healthy spouse with the recognition and approval for positive attributes this person deserves.  Or seek assistance to learn what it takes to be a healthy individual or couple from a trained professional therapist.  

Find mentors and friends who offer positive role modeling and admired attributes in their behaviors.  Strive to find persons who offer comfort, but also beneficial advice to improve nurturing behaviors in yourself.

The DNA can repair itself somewhat over time through reduction of stress and the acquisition of skills that may become a part of our genetic inclinations to survive adaptably.  Fortunately, our DNA can retain life-enhancing capacities as well as detrimental attributes.

Remember also that stress results from how we think of threatening events.  We have considerable control over how we allow terrible experiences to affect us, as Victor Frankl explained in his book, Logotherapy.  Despite near constant torment in a Nazi concentration camp, he emerged psychologically healthy because his captors could not control his thinking processes.

When we view stress as something we can absorb without it deterring us from our goals to think and behave healthfully, we reduce the effects of stress on our bodies and minds.  

This explanation of stress and its effects on our genetic structures is greatly simplified.  Several competent reviewers helped me and I am grateful to them.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.