Is Your Work Environment Affecting Your Genes?


If you are an average American, then you spend almost ONE QUARTER of your life at work! For many of us, this means we are at the office dealing with computer screens, deadlines, malfunctioning printers, and coworkers (even worse, toxic colleagues). In the best office environment, the life of the modern-day worker is filled with stress.

While most of us are aware of the effects stress has on our lives, you may be surprised to learn that chronic stress can affect you on the most fundamental level: your genes.

It is estimated that the human body has about 24,000 genes. These genes make up who we are and are responsible for everything from the color of our hair and eyes to behavioral and psychological traits. Some genes even hold potential for life-threatening diseases.

Genes are the blueprint for what is possible, but not all genes are expressed or "turned on”, and on top of that, many genes can be “turned up” or “turned down”, much like the volume knob on your stereo. While we don't always have control over what genes are expressed, the vast majority of genes are affected by our environment - this is called epigenetics. For people with a genetic predisposition to certain diseases or conditions, these harmful genes can be “turned up” due to factors in our lives, whether chemicals we come in contact with, the food we eat, and chronic stress.

Cortisol, the hormone released during stressful situations, can affect our genes on an epigenetic level - specifically affecting genes that produce an inflammatory response. Inflammation is a vital part of our body's healing process, protecting damaged body parts and helping fight off infection. However, when we're chronically stressed, the genes expressing inflammation do so even when there's no illness to fight. This chronic inflammation is known to cause many of our modern day illnesses, including heart disease, lowered immune response, and compromised brain function.

Additionally, studies have shown that stress levels that affect your genes have the potential to be passed down through future generations - this is called transgenerational epigenetics. So managing your environment and reducing stress is not only healthy for you, but also for your children, and your children's children!

The good news is that we can influence certain environmental factors that affect our genes and can keep disease-causing genes from “turning up” through healthy lifestyle choices. The foods we eat, the environment we are in, the amount of sleep we give ourselves, and our levels of exercise all have an impact on how our genes express themselves. In some cases, reducing stress levels and incorporating other healthy habits can actually reverse the damage from genes that cause life-threatening diseases.

Here are a few tips to keep your genes healthy while at the office.

1. MIni-Breaks

Short, frequent breaks are proven to relieve stress and increase productivity and creativity.

You may have heard of the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method utilizing a timer to schedule periods of focused work, separated by short breaks. Traditionally the timer is set to 25-30 minutes, allotted for undistracted work, followed by 3-5 minutes to recharge, but you can adjust this based on how you work best and how much break-time rejuvenates you. I LOVE this technique!

You can use an inexpensive kitchen timer, your cell phone timer, or an online timer such as Tomato Timer.

During the work sessions, it is important to focus only on the task at hand, and avoid distractions such as checking social media or email, so be sure to put your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb.’ And while it may be tempting to use the break period for browsing Facebook, for maximum benefit, you can choose from one of the tips below.

2. Mindfulness Meditation

Five minutes of mindful meditation is proven to lower cortisol levels. It also helps soothe the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering heart and breathing rate, and reducing blood pressure.

3. Nature Bathing

A 5-minute walk in nature not only has positive effects on our nervous system, but also correlates with higher cognitive functioning, improving memory and attention for the next 25-30 work session. If you work in an area where a walk in nature is not feasible, bring nature to you. Plants in the workplace have been shown to reduce tension, anxiety, depression, hostility, fatigue, and even remove toxins from the air.

4. Move It

Use your regular breaks to stretch, do some yoga, or go for a walk. Regular exercise will reduce stress levels while also staving off debilitating issues associated with the sedentary lifestyle common with office work. Also, think about transitioning to a standing desk.

5. Unplug

Being in the office requires long days of staring at screens, whether we’re checking emails, video conferencing, or creating content. It’s important to take regular breaks to allow our eyes and mind to relax. When taking a break from work, resist the temptation to pull out your smartphone to connect with the outside world. Instead, try to focus on something outside in the distance - this long distance focus will actually relax your eye muscles and reduce tension.

For more tips on ways to reduce stress at the office, tune in to Episode 004 of my podcast Females in Fine Fettle. And stick around for Episode 005 to learn more about how our lifestyle choices affect our genes.

To your health,
- Dr. Michelle & the VWS Team