Excess Stress Changes Marks on DNA and Could Epigenetically Harm Mental Health

Stress and Epigenetics Affect Mental Health

An excess amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body could impact epigenetic processes and boost one’s risk of experiencing psychological issues in the long run, reports a new study in Scientific Reports. People with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression and other stress-related disorders could be adjusting chemical tags on their DNA as a result of high cortisol exposure, which may even persist throughout the course of their lives or be passed on to their children.

The study assessed individuals in remission with Cushing’s Syndrome (CS) and found a significant alteration to epigenetic marks across the entire genome. Although CS is a rare disorder caused by excess production of the hormone cortisol, the results may translate similarly to those suffering from other common conditions related to high-stress. Additionally, those afflicted with CS are also highly at risk for suffering from anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cognitive impairment.

In this study, the researchers found genome-wide change in DNA methylation. The CS patients who were exposed to high amounts of cortisol had less DNA methylation overall compared to healthy individuals. DNA methylation is a popular epigenetic mechanism defined by the addition of methyl groups to certain locations on the DNA. It is known to suppress the expression of genes.

The team also found that specific DNA methylation adjustments were linked to the ongoing psychiatric issues the patients typically suffered from. These methylation changes were connected to genes that play a role in cortisol sensitivity and the plasticity and development of the brain.

“If these results can be verified and repeated in other studies, they would have significance for future possibilities for treating stress-induced psychological consequences,” said postdoctoral researcher, Camilla Glad, at the Department of Internal Medicine and Clinical Nutrition.

Since CS is typically caused from benign tumor growth in the adrenal or pituitary gland, operating on the tumor can improve physical symptoms. However, Glad says that even after doing this, “our previous studies show that the psychiatric problems largely often persist.”

The repercussions from these psychiatric issues are far-reaching and can have a meaningful impact on the quality of life. For instance, some will never return to life at work, avoid venturing into society and participating in everyday, normal activities.

“They quite simply constitute a patient group with major problems for whom we are extremely eager to find new ways to help,” said Glad.

To some extent, it has already been known that an increased stress load has the ability to epigenetically impact DNA. Previous studies have demonstrated that high levels of cortisol and extreme stress change DNA methylation.

“If there is a programmed sensitivity for cortisol where the response is depressions and anxiety at very low levels then this is not good for the future. We are talking about changes in DNA that have the potential to persist for the remainder of the patient’s life, and which can also be hereditary,” noted Glad.

Glad indicates that if DNA methylation levels are able to affect levels of various proteins, new doors will open to possible treatments. “With the knowledge we have today, I do not think we will be able to affect DNA methylation itself, but might, however, in the long-term, be able to counteract its effects,” she said.


Source: Glad, C. et al. (2017). Reduced DNA methylation and psychopathology following endogenous hypercortisolism – a genome-wide study. Scientific Reports, 7: 44445.

Reference: Kubista, M. Cortisol excess hits natural DNA process and mental health hard. University of Gothenburg. 28 Mar 2017. Web.

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About Bailey Kirkpatrick 164 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology with a passion for conveying scientific concepts to the wider community. She enjoys speculating about the implications of epigenetics and how it might impact our perception of wellbeing and the development of novel preventative strategies. When she’s not combing through research articles, she also enjoys discovering new foods, taking nighttime strolls, and discussing current events over a barrel-aged sour beer or cold-brewed coffee.


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