Published On: August 1st, 2023Tags:

About the Author: Claire Draudt, FNP

Claire Draudt, FNP is a Functional Nurse Practitioner with MovementX partner Merritt Health and Wellness in Portland, OR.

How Epigenetics Impacts our Mental Health

Recent evidence shows a strong link between how our environment and experiences in our lives can change the quality of our mental health. Bringing new meaning to nature versus nurture as it applies to our psychological well-being.

With whom, where and how we spend our time can impact our gene expression. Furthermore, gene expression directly impacts how we feel, think, move, and behave.

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the activation of certain genes without changing your DNA sequencing.

We are made up of information, DNA, which is organized into groupings called genes. Genes hold a specific code that when “turned on” or “activated” via methylation leads to differences in genomic expression.

Methylation is the chemical modification of DNA that is kept and repeated when cells duplicate or divide. Methylation happens in a variety of ways including life exposures and experiences. Environment, diet, relationships, physical, mental and emotional trauma all play a role in how our genes present.

How Does Epigenetics Impact My Mental Health?

In 2011 the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London conducted the first twin study to display the impact of neuropsychiatric disease on epigenetics (Dempster et al., 2014). The study included twenty-two pairs of genetically identical twins where one of these twins had either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder were studied. While no genomic alterations were found between twins, several differentially methylated regions (DMRs) were identified as discordant between monozygotic twins. These affected genes share DMRs from specific networks that had been previously implicated in the etiology of schizophrenia. Thus, giving further support to our lived experiences and their ability to alter our genetic expression starting in the womb. In this case, resulting in psychological illness.

Early life stress that occurs before birth or soon after birth can shape neurobiology for life (Li et al., 2020). Examples of early life stress include neglect, abuse, maternal stress, PTSD, natural disasters, low socioeconomic status, parent psychopathology, parent divorce, death of family/friends. Such adversities in early childhood alter regulation of serotonin, dopamine and some neuropeptides which can lead to increased risk of major depression disorder as well as other mental health disorders in early adulthood.

There are 3 main theories on how early life stress can affect later life stress:

  • Stress-amplification theory
  • Stress-inoculation theory
  • Stress-sensitization theory.

The first posits that early life stress creates an additive effect and increases risk of depression later in life. The second proposes a “steeling” effect where stress early in life allows for adaptive coping mechanisms and may reduce risk of mental health concerns later in life. Third, early life stress increases sensitivity to even mild stress resulting in depression.

Let’s learn more about daily life experience and its effect on mental health through adaptive phenotypic plasticity.

What is ‘Adaptive Phenotypic Plasticity’ and Why Does it Matter?

All living things have a specific DNA sequence, or genotype. How a living creature presents physically in the world is dictated by their phenotype, think hair or eye color. Phenotype can be thought of as the expression of a genotype, a clinical presentation. Historically, evolutionary biology gave more weight to genes than phenotypes. However, in 2003, American biologist, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, developed an evolutionary theory that phenotypes dictate gene expression: Adaptive phenotypic plasticity.

The theory of Neo-Darwinism synthesis, aka natural selection, along with the impact of environmental inputs creates phenotypic plasticity. Phenotypic plasticity is the ability for a living creature to present differently than a species with the same genetic make up based on their environmental exposures. Adaptation to a new environment has been shown to impact a species phenotype and therefore change their genotype.

Our environment impacts our physical expression in a myriad of ways, including our mental health. Anecdotally, think of how the president of the U.S. looks at the start of their term and how they appear at the end of their term. The impact of stress, sleepless nights, travel, responsibility wears on their physique. This physical expression, phenotype, changes their genetic structure.

Some of these exposures, whether they are controllable or not, can be influenced positively. Let’s see how.

What Can Be Done to Improve Mental Health in the Face of Epigenetic Adversity?

The Big 4: Extra-therapeutic factors, relationship factors, model or technique, hope & expectancy.

These 4 factors affect people’s mental health outcomes. Extra-therapeutic strength refers to personal strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, attitudes and their environment. This accounts for 40% of the outcome predictability. The therapeutic relationships a person has holds 30% weight in their ability to cope through mental health disorders. A person’s perceived empathy, warmth, and acceptance from their clinicians, therapists, friends, family members is hugely important in the evolution of their mental disorder. How motivated and engaged a person is in their treatment is included in relationship factors as well. How hopeful a person is that their mental health concerns will be met with a positive outcome is weighted at 15%. And the model of counseling, how you approach a person struggling with their mental health, is similarly weighted at 15%.

This is a helpful reflection tool because it highlights the importance of relationships in our lives and on our mental health. While what a person brings to the table is most heavily weighted, it is important to acknowledge the community aspect of improving mental health concerns. Involving clinicians, therapists, friends and family members that lead with empathy, warmth and acceptance is as healing as therapeutic technique and the person’s expectations for their mental health outcome combined.


The experiences we have in our lives play a role in our mental health from a very early age. More research is needed to further understand how day to day experiences, like diet and physical activity, impact our genome. One key takeaway to highlight is, who you surround yourself with matters. Choosing supportive and empathetic persons to be around will positively impact your mental health. Pay it forward by paying attention to those in your life that may need some extra acceptance. Who knows, you may alter their phenotype.

About the Author:

Claire Draudt, FNP, MSN, RN, BSN, BA

Claire works at Merritt Health and Wellness as a Family and Functional Nurse Practitioner. She specializes in men’s, women’s, and transgendered patients. She applies a functional medicine approach to any and all ailment experienced by the patient. In her free time she enjoys outdoor adventures with her dog Okja, home cooked meals with her boyfriend and gathering with family and friends. You can find Claire at, she is taking new clients in NE Portland and Sellwood neighborhood.

Locations: 6035 SE Milwaukie Ave, Portland, OR 97202

NE Glisan Location (In New Heights Physical Therapy) 5736 NE Glisan St, Portland, OR 97213


  1. Addis Enterprises. 2023. Extra-Therapeutic Factors. Improving MI Practices.
  2. Dempster, E., Pidsley, R., Schalkwyk, L., Owens, S., Georgiades, A., Kane, F., Kalidindi, S., Pichioni, M., Kravariti, E., Toulopoulou, T., Murray, R., Mill, J. (2014). Disease-associated epigenetic changes in monozygotic twins discordant for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Human Molecular Genetics, 20, 24, 2786-4796.
  3. Ghalambor, C.K., Mckay, J.K., Carrolls, S.P., Reznick, D.N. (2007). Adaptive versus non-adaptive phenotypic plasticity and the potential for contemporary adaptation in new environments. Functional Ecology, 21, 394-407. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2007.01283.
  4. Li, M., Fu, X., Xie, W., Guo, W., Li, B., Cui, R., Yang, W. (2020). Effect of early life stress on the epigenetic profiles in depression. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, 8, 867. Doi:10.3389/fcell.2020.00867
  5. Pagliaccio, D., Barch, D. (2016). Early Life Adversity and Risk for Depression. Systems Neuroscience in Depression. Academic Press.

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