Everything our body does to try and balance stress depends on two important aspects: hormones and our DNA. They influence so many life factors… everything from the act of digesting food to momentous events in our lives… and how we respond to those things.
One thing is for sure: they do a lot more than what we were taught in 5th grade health class.
Yes, DNA is the genetic blueprint we are born with, but it does a lot more than just determine our eye color. It can influence whether we’re more susceptible to certain diseases and health issues. Our DNA can even affect the hormone balance in our bodies. However, neither our genes nor our hormones are predestined life sentences. While our DNA affects our hormones, those same hormones also have an impact on genetic expression and overall well-being. Learning how hormones and DNA work together and impact each other can help us take better charge of what “optimal wellness” means for us. We can then use this knowledge to create a beautiful, harmonious balance in our health and our lives. (1,2)
How Hormones and DNA Influence Our Lives
So, how do hormones and DNA work, anyway? Simply put, hormones are chemicals produced in the body that tell organs what to do and when to do it. Think of them a Communications Specialists.
What do hormones do?
Our bodies rely on hormones to regulate most processes. For example, hormones help balance metabolism, which controls appetite, cravings, and eating behavior. Throughout our lives, hormones help manage growth and development, reproductive cycles, and sexual functions. If our hormones go off-balance, then our cycles – menstrual cycle, sleeping cycle, and other functions – go out of whack too. Hormones even assist in maintaining a balanced body temperature and heart rate.
Maybe a better question is, what don’t hormones do? (1,3)
As for our DNA, genes are like the blueprints for our bodies. Think of instructions similar to a recipe. Our DNA helped construct many characteristics we have. It determines whether we’re tall or short, or how big or small our nose is. And yes, our genes play a part in what can happen to us, such as a predisposition to certain illnesses and obesity. How we sleep, how we perceive stress, and how our bodies function (like hormonal responses) are impacted in some way by genetics. We inherit these traits from our parents, and we pass them on to our own children. DNA is amazing, taking characteristics from both parents, and mixing them perfectly to concoct a unique individual unlike anyone else on the planet. Think about it! Every person in existence has a slightly different blueprint, which is perfect for each and every one of us. (2)
They have a huge impact on our lives, but hormones and DNA aren’t the only factors to consider in matters relating to our health. Our environment and daily habits can greatly influence our health. In fact, the environment and our lifestyle can literally change our hormonal balance, which in turn, affects our DNA.
Environment and Habits Affect Hormones and DNA
To understand and optimize our health, we need to understand the relationship between our hormones and DNA. Once we understand that, it’s only natural to evaluate our lifestyle in relation to our hormones and our genetics. Do our behaviors encourage a healthy hormone balance? Or do they encourage something else? Judith Stern, a professor of Nutrition and Internal Medicine at the University of California, Davis once said “genetics loads the gun but the environment pulls the trigger”. It doesn’t do us any good to shift the blame solely on our “bad genes” or hormonal imbalances. Small behavior changes do affect hormones and DNA. Your world and life experiences shape your behavior, identity, and ultimately they impact your very DNA, hormonal balance, and health, too. (3,4)
For instance, take the obesity epidemic in the US. There is a link between obesity and genetic variations. This means some people may have a stronger likelihood of gaining weight than others. However, the so-called “obesity-gene” doesn’t automatically mean a person will definitely be overweight. What could prevent an obesity-gene from showing? Healthy eating habits and movement can be hugely important when it comes to counteracting a “tendency” toward obesity. But these days it’s easy to overeat and can be harder to find opportunities to move. Modern society looks for quick fixes rather than natural strategies because these take longer to implement and see results. Genes may increase the chances of someone gaining weight, but it’s actions and environment that ultimately cause it to happen. (2,5)
Food’s Impact on Hormones and DNA
Different people react to food in different ways. This is due to our hormones and DNA. In a 2015 study, 800 participants ate an identical meal and had their blood sugar tested afterward. As you might expect, each individual, each with different genetic makeup, had a different blood sugar level. Everyone had eaten the same amount of protein, the same amount of carbs. But each one of us has our own metabolic and nutritional needs. Our genes affect our reaction to food. This is also why personalized diets are more successful at stabilizing blood sugar and balancing hormones. So depending on your genes, you literally might be able to have your cake and eat it too. (6)
Certain foods can wreak havoc on our hormones, leading to poorer health. Look at society’s current relationship with sugar. We’ve eaten sugar for centuries, but until it became industrialized, it wasn’t considered such a health concern. Two hundred years ago, humans ate just two pounds of sugar a year. Today, we are eating roughly 150 pounds a year! We’re also consuming more processed sugar today, which is vastly different than the sugar of 200 years ago. Unfortunately, our genes haven’t adapted to tolerate the amount or the type of sugars being consumed. And you’re probably already aware that the sweet substance definitely affects our hormones. Sugar causes a release of dopamine, triggering strong cravings and even withdrawal symptoms that are similar to cocaine and heroin. No wonder we have a hard time with sugar, it’s messing with our hormones and our head! (6)
DNA Affect Our Hormones
Genes can affect hormones in various ways. Our DNA influences cortisol and our response to stress. It also influences hormonal imbalances such as estrogen dominance and thyroid functions, mainly Hashimoto thyroiditis. (3)
Genetic Influence on Estrogen Dominance
Estrogen plays a vital role in women’s reproductive health because it regulates the menstrual cycle and is necessary for reproduction. Estrogen also helps maintain bone density (low estrogen is linked to osteoporosis), brain function, and balancing inflammation. But as much as estrogen aids in feminine wellness, too much of it can also be bad. (3)
Too much estrogen is known as estrogen dominance. You may be estrogen dominant if you experience:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Heavy menstrual flows
- Loss of sex drive
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Fatigue, depression, and anxiety
Studies show that high estrogen can be passed down in our genes. Certain genes have a dramatic impact on estrogen dominance. There’s a gene called COMT (which creates the enzyme catechol-O-methyltransferase), which has a variation that limits the body’s ability to remove catechol. Basically, catechol includes estrogen. So, this gene slows down the release and removal of excess estrogen, which leads to estrogen dominance. Unfortunately, this creates a pretty vicious cycle. More estrogen in the body suppresses COMT activity, which leads to more estrogen, and so on it goes. Even more unfortunately than that, this also impacts our ability to deal with stress and anxiety, so problems can begin to compound. Looking to alleviate chronic symptoms from your menstrual cycle? A very important first step is checking in on how genes and hormones are at play, and whether they are playing nicely. It’s one less thing to stress about. (7)
Stress Hormones and DNA
Speaking of stress, ever wonder why some people react to stressful situations more calmly than others? Yup, genes play a role in shaping our stress response, too. A 2015 study showed us how our genetic make-up influences the release of stress hormones, and therefore our behavior. (8)
The brain controls our behaviors, and it depends on DNA’s influence on hormones to do that. The quicker dopamine is metabolized, the less stressed we are. People who are more easily stressed tend to metabolize dopamine slower, but they also tend to score higher in cognitive performance tests. Fortunately, with the environment and healthy habits playing a role, we can work to achieve both high cognitive performance and reduce our stress response too. We can strengthen our healthy habits to have a positive impact on all aspects of our life. (8)
Genes, Hormones, and Hashimoto Thyroiditis
The thyroid is a small but oh-so-mighty gland that controls a variety of functions. It makes hormones that aid in growth and development, regulates body temperature, heart rate, menstrual cycle, and even our weight. Being diligent in our understanding of hormones and DNA can help us keep our thyroid in check as well.
A condition known as Hashimoto thyroiditis is an inflammation that affects the thyroid and cuts the production of important hormones. (9) Many experts consider Hashimoto thyroiditis the result of both genetic and environmental factors. There it is again… genes more than likely put a person at risk, but it’s their habits and lifestyle that pull the trigger. Some of these triggers include certain medications, eating a lot of animal proteins, and excessive consumption of iodine. Another big consideration is changes in sex hormones, particularly in women. In fact, women are 5-8 times more likely than men to develop a thyroid disorder. This is a serious condition but can often be balanced with simple actions. (6,9)
What to Do About Hormones and DNA
It’s important to get connected with all of ourselves, to learn as much as we can about how our genes can impact our lives in various ways. And that goes especially for our hormones and DNA! While it is essential to our overall wellness that we adopt healthy habits to improve our lives, exploring ways to work with our DNA can reap enormous benefits for our cycles, our health, and our lives.
To gain better insight into how your genes are impacting your hormone levels, get your hormone gene blueprint in DNA Made Simple. Find out your genetic predispositions for thyroid hormone, cortisol, melatonin, estrogen, testosterone and more. You’ll get insights into your period problems, hot flashes, energy levels, autoimmune propensity and your body’s ability to detoxify hormones safely.
- Vitti, A. In the Flo. HarperCollins, New York, 2020.
- Jardin, N. Fix Your Period. HarperWave Publishing, 2020.