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Epigenetics and Mental Health

Mental Health

Epigenetics and…

In this series of articles we will be exploring the link between epigenetics and some of the most hotly discussed health conditions, exploring how understanding epigenetics can have a huge impact on our knowledge and even prevention of these conditions. Next up, we explore epigenetics and Mental Health.

If you would like more information about how ToHealth can provide your employees with these types of valuable insights, check out our DNA & Epigenetic testing services.

Current state of Mental Health in the UK

Over the past decade, government investment has driven a welcome transformation of NHS mental health service provision. However, historical underinvestment in the mental health services means the UK Government has been building from a low base. Despite progress, significant numbers of people of all ages who would benefit from access to NHS services do not get the care they need. 

There is an estimate that more than 60% of children and young people who have diagnosable mental health conditions do not currently receive NHS care.

Approximately 1 in 6 people aged 16 and over in England were identified as having a common mental health condition in 2014, according to survey data.In 2020 to 2021, there were around half a million people with more severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.There are also worrying trends for children and young people, with rates of probable mental health disorders in 6 to 16-year-olds rising from 11.6% in 2017 to 17.4% in 2021.

More people than ever are receiving support for a mental health crisis and, tragically, the numbers of those ending their life through suicide have broadly increased over the past decade.We know that two-thirds of people who end their life by suicide are not in contact with NHS mental health services.

For many of us, the experience of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – and its wide-ranging impacts on individuals, families, society and the economy – have brought these issues into sharper focus. Around 1 in 5 adults in Britain experienced some form of depression in the first 3 months of 2021, over double pre-pandemic figures.

This is obviously a health concern that MUST be addressed and there are a number of different ways to approach this. However, as with most issues, we must first begin with a deep understanding of the issue itself. This is where epigenetic comes in.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of how our lifestyle and surrounding environment influence the behaviour of our genes. To simplify, if we can think about each gene having an on-off switch, our lifestyle as well as our environment can influence whether a particular gene is “on” or “off”. The combination of which genes are “on” and which are “off” impacts on our overall health. I like to use the analogy of a crossroad to try to explain this better – in the picture below we can think of each traffic light as representing a gene.

Having the right combination of red light and green lights switching on and off, would help the crossroads work in the most efficient way to keep traffic moving, whilst keeping the risk of accident as low as possible. Epigenetics is the study of how our lifestyle and environment can influence these traffic lights.

For a more in-depth exploration of epigenetics, check out our epigenetics 101 beginners guide.

What can epigenetics tell us about our Mental Health?

By studying our epigenetics, we can detect patterns which may be associated with increased risk of developing certain mental health problems, having severe symptoms and having good response to treatment. 

It is thought that stress (especially in early stages of life) can cause long-term effects on how some of our genes are expressed. One study has shown that epigenetic changes as a result of stress can cause an upregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which can lead to increased anxiety levels. 

One study of two monozygotic (identical) twins found that there was a difference in the epigenetics between them when one of the twins was bullied and the other one was not.

It is also interesting that some research shows epigenetic patterns that can suggest the likelihood of good response to talking therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and how this response may be able to be altered with changes in our diet. Mindfulness in certain studies has also shown to cause changes to our epigenetics in comparison with a control group.

Current literature shows that there also may be an association with certain epigenetic gene patterns and suicide, however it looks like further research is needed in this area.

Can we influence our epigenetics to modify our risk?

Several lifestyle factors have been identified that can may modify epigenetic patterns and hence by changing our lifestyle we can potential modify our epigenetic patterns, which may impact on our risk of developing certain health problems including mental health related problems. By analysing our own unique epigenetics, we can understand what aspects of our lifestyle we may need to change.

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1 McGowan, P. O., Sasaki, A., D’Alessio, A. C., Dymov, S., Labonté, B., Szyf, M., Turecki, G., & Meaney, M. J. (2009). Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse. Nature Neuroscience, 12(3), 342–348.

2 Ouellet-Morin, I., Wong, C. C. Y., Danese, A., Pariante, C. M., Papadopoulos, A. S., Mill, J., & Arseneault, L. (2013). Increased serotonin transporter gene (SERT) DNA methylation is associated with bullying victimization and blunted cortisol response to stress in childhood: A longitudinal study of discordant monozygotic twins. Psychology of Medicine43(9), 1813–1823.

3 Roberts, S., Keers, R., Lester, K. J., Coleman, J. R. I., Breen, G., Arendt, K., Blatter-Meunier, J., Cooper, P., Creswell, C., Fjermestad, K., Havik, O. E., Herren, C., Hogendoorn, S. M., Hudson, J. L., Krause, K., Lyneham, H. J., Morris, T., Nauta, M., Rapee, R. M., . . . Wong, C. C. Y. (2015). HPA axis related genes and response to psychological therapies: Genetics and epigenetics. Depression and Anxiety32(12), 861–870. 

4 Chaix, R., Fagny, M., Cosin-Tomás, M., Alvarez-López, M., Lemee, L., Regnault, B., Davidson, R. J., Lutz, A., & Kaliman, P. (2020). Differential DNA methylation in experienced meditators after an intensive day of mindfulness-based practice: Implications for immune-related pathways. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity84, 36–44.

5 Turecki G. Epigenetics and suicidal behavior research pathways. Am J Prev Med. 2014 Sep;47(3 Suppl 2):S144-51.