Modern life and work are two things closely related. Our job occupies the majority of hours of a day, and the quality of our work environment inevitably affects us in positive or negative ways.
However, until recently, studies have identified that our lifestyle and our work environment might be affecting even our genes. This article offers a quick review of how our work environment and our lifestyle might be affecting our genes.
What do you know about genes and DNA?
Let’s have a quick reminder: DNA is the basic information molecule that contains the blueprint for all of an organism’s structure and function.
On the other hand, genes are sections of a DNA chain that encode the instructions for the assembly of proteins, which ultimately have specific functions in the organism.
Some examples of proteins are:
- the hemoglobin of our red blood cells that transports oxygen and carbon dioxide,
- the enzymes we use to digest our food,
- or the keratin that makes up our hair and nails.
In other words, what gene expression is, is how genes are “read” to generate their correspondent proteins.
Our genome (the entire genetic material of an organism) is what makes us unique, both as species and as individuals, and what allows us to function at a molecular level. That genome stays the same throughout all of our cells, and throughout all of our lifespans.
Well, that last part is just partially correct. What can change throughout our life is how those genes are expressed, how those genes are translated into proteins.
This is controlled by epigenetic tags: molecules (methyl groups and histones) that bind with DNA in order to suppress or allow a gene’s expression, or how much of a certain gene is expressed.
These epigenetic tags are what allow, for example, a skin cell to express all the genes a skin cell needs, and not to express genes not associated with that cell´s function.
However, changes in genes´ expression do not only vary depending on the tissue a cell belongs to, or at different stages of human development (such as the genetic expression that leads to the physical changes seen during puberty or those women undergo during motherhood); but it is also modified by our environments.
At work, we are susceptible to adopting different diets, chronic stress, depression, or even we might be affected by our colleagues’ smoking habit. And all of those factors might be affecting our epigenome.
For example, cortisol, which is the molecule secreted by suprarenal glands as a response to stress, increases the level of glucose in blood, suppresses the immune system, accelerates the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates, and diminishes bony formation.
Cortisol is what triggers our instinctive fight-or-flight response enabling us to respond to danger and survive.
However, if we are stressed out by certain circumstances such as deadlines or angry bosses at a daily basis, epigenetic tags can end up binding to the wrong places and start causing undesired effects in our body.
This can be observed in the meta-analysis conducted by Hoffman & Spegler (2012). In it, they indicate that a long-lasting exposure to social stress occasionates persistent epigenetic changes in a subject’s brain cell DNA, that end up modifying one´s behavior, cognition and endocrine functions.
Due to the risks of the exposure to chronic stress, it is very important to maintain a friendly work environment and conduct relaxing activities that reduce our stress in order to avoid these conditions.
A bad diet and smoking are other two factors that affect our epigenome.
Smoking, as corroborated by Ma & Li (2017) on Science Reports, affects the methylation of several DNA sections that kickstart several biological pathways that led to cancer.
These modifications in genes’ methylations do not only increase the risk for lung cancer, but also prostate and kidney cancer, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular diseases.
However, these alterations may not necessarily stop after someone stops smoking. It has been observed that the methylation of many genes due to smoking habits persist several years after leaving the habit.
On the other hand, diet has been strongly linked with human evolution.
Nowadays the inclusion of not only new & artificial ingredients but also of highly processed and fat-rich foods has contributed to a growing number of patients with diabetes and obesity.
As with stress, the diet-related factors previously named also affect the human epigenome.
For example, a high-fat diet is likely to affect genes that code for proteins involved in the reduction of body fat, food intake and energy expenditure; facilitating, in consequence, the progression of obesity. [source]
Despite these modifications of the expression of certain genes, it was thought that this information (epigenetics) was stripped off our genetic code when we passed our genetic information on to our children. But scientific studies have demonstrated that some of this information is indeed passed on to our descendants.
For example, children whose mothers lived on highly stressful environments have been found to be more likely of having an “aged epigenome” by stress, similar to an adult´s epigenetic tags modified by a stressful environment. This means that some epigenetic tags are indeed being passed irreversibly throughout generations.
In other words:
The stress of your work environment may not only be affecting you, but also your children.
Additionally, children whose mothers were anxious and stressed have been found to have reduced gray matter volumes in the premotor cortex, the prefrontal cortex, the medial temporal lobe and other areas relevant for memory storage and learning skills.
And it has been observed that these infants tend to form insecure attachment bonds and are more likely to show low social engagement behaviors.
Other modifications in a newborn´s epigenetic tags have been observed when one of the parents experiences circumstances such as over or undernutrition, or has been exposed to alcohol, tobacco, or other endocrine disruptors, before the conception of the newborn (Barua, S., & Junaid, M. A.; 2015).
These different factors contribute to different changes on the epigenome of both the parent and the newborn, and may lead to different and specific medical conditions.
As seen along this article, our environments are able to change our epigenetic tags. Not only ours but also the epigenome of our children and grandchildren.
Your work environment may be adding pressure to your lifestyle and influencing your gene expression. So take care of yourself, evaluate if you are having a healthy life, and make corrections to it. Be smoking, a bad diet, or a stressful work environment, look into yourself & try to maintain a healthy lifestyle by having a balanced diet and reducing your stress, not only for yourself, but also for future generations.