Every change in your emotional state leads to a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitter substances, and can effect changes in the shape, voltage, and biochemistry of cell membrane receptors, and those changes influence gene expression. Neuropeptides, hormones, enzymes, and dozens of other agents are directly affected by our emotional state. There are neural, endocrine, and immune pathways through which thoughts, beliefs, images, and attitudes can affect gene expression, and affect cell proliferation as in cancer.
Emotional awareness and self-expression can affect which genes get turned on or off at any given time. The significance of physiological stress resulting in alterations in cell membrane function is that necessary substances may not be able to enter or exit cells at the appropriate times. For example, oncogenes get turned on with greater frequency by emotional suppression or repression, thereby increasing the odds of developing cancer.
Receptors on immune cell membranes become impaired with emotional repression and suppression. Neuropeptides and their corresponding receptors on cell membranes throughout the body undergo biochemical changes with cognition and especially with emotion. Our emotion-laden thoughts determine whether certain molecules will succeed in binding to the receptors for that molecule and whether or not the molecule will gain entrance to the cells where they are needed. Aside from pathological changes, even healthy emotional experiences create biochemical changes by altering cell membrane receptor function throughout the entire body in every moment throughout our lives.
Emotional distress activates the limbic-hypothalamic system to convert neural signals into neuropeptide messenger molecules that have direct effects on the endocrine and immune systems. Certain hormones are then synthesized, which then have an effect on which genes get expressed.
Living with a high allostatic load (chronic physiological stress) causes oncogenes to turn on, increasing the odds of falling victim to cancer. We all have genes for various serious illnesses and conditions. Since we know that chronic emotional distress leads to physiological stress, and that physiological stress is one of the epigenetic variables, the genes for those diagnoses are far more likely to express in people living with chronic emotional distress.
Psychoneuroimmunology researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University Medical School has been studying medical students throughout her long career. One month prior to an intense period of academic exams, medical students were tested for their levels of messenger RNA expression of the proto-oncogenes c-myc and c-myb in their peripheral leukocytes. The blood draws and assays were repeated at the height of the academic exam period. The messenger RNA expression of these proto-oncogenes was elevated during the stressful academic exam period. It was already well known that emotional stress is immunosuppressive. This study demonstrated that the immunosuppression as evidenced by the increased messenger RNA expression of proto-oncogenes resulted in actual genetic alterations of the type that lead to the turning on of oncogenes. In other words, the students’ emotional distress is what created alterations in cell membrane function, which in turn resulted in transduction of signals to the DNA in the nucleus, and that in turn created alterations in the messenger RNA. We normally have molecular DNA repair mechanisms in place to prevent these genetic mutations from developing into actual tumors. However, Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser proved that emotional distress interferes with the biochemical machinery of these repair mechanisms.
Research by Dr. Candace Pert demonstrated that every thought, emotion, and sensation causes molecular changes in neurotransmitter substances. All these messenger molecules are in constant dialogue with all our thoughts and emotions.
When a voltage-gated channel on a cell membrane perceives the correct charge and amplitude, it opens and allows sodium, potassium, or other molecules to enter or exit the cell. Chemically gated ion channels must perceive the correct ions in order to allow for ionic transfer. Neurotransmitters are not ions, but they alter cell membrane permeability.
With hyper-stimulation over a period of time, cell membranes start to lose receptors, thereby becoming less sensitive, while cells that are under-stimulated tend to increase their receptors, thereby increasing their susceptibility to stimulation. Chronic use of either prescription or recreational drugs can also permanently alter cell function.
There is an important psychophysiological principle, clearly articulated by brain researcher Dr. Alyce Green that states: Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental /emotional state, conscious or unconscious; and, conversely, every change in the mental/emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.
For example, low serotonin leads to depression and negative schemas (the stories we make up to explain things). High serotonin levels lead to positive affect and positive schemas. Interestingly, when we feel in control of our lives, serotonin levels rise. Conversely, when we feel overwhelmed by life circumstances, serotonin levels drop.
Serotonin and cortisol are often inversely proportional. This is why many people suffer with both anxiety as well as depression. Just as high cortisol results in anxiety, low serotonin results in depression. High cortisol can be secondary to anxiety or any type of physiological stress, such as infection from viruses, bacteria, fungi, or from trauma.