Behavioural Epigenetics: Yes, you have turned into your mother; and if you don’t like it, well… just relax!

The emerging field of behavioural epigenetics is starting to make its mark in the ‘applied’ fields of clinical psychology and behavioural medicine. And here’s the reason why.

It will probably come as no surprise to discover that your behavioural style (personality, if you will) is, in large measure, genetically inherited from your parents. But, and here’s where it gets interesting for mental health clinicians, it seems that the genetic inheritance you were dealt may, at least in its behavioural expression, be highly malleable.

Friedrich Miescher

A little background here: For most of the time since DNA was discovered – it was first isolated by Swiss biological chemist Friedrich Miescher in 1869, who called his discovery ‘nuclein’ – mainstream scientists have viewed an individual’s DNA as a biological constant. In other words, the DNA you inherited at birth would remain unchanged throughout your lifespan, unless you’d suffered exposure to known DNA ‘corruptors’ such as radiation.

Then, in the 1980s, papers began to appear challenging this orthodoxy. Israeli biochemist, Dr Aharon Razin, is a notable name in this regard. In a series of publications, he reported how, in response to a number of biochemical factors, the body would attach methyl or acetyl groups to our DNA, changing its physical structure and hence its function. How exactly? Well, Methyl groups cause DNA to coil-up and become less accessible for transcription (copying) – leading to reduced gene expression. Acetyl groups, on the other hand, have the opposite effect; loosening the DNA coil, increasing the ease of copying and so promoting gene expression. What is more, it appeared as though such changes were permanent, at least until such time as future biochemical influencers prompted further change.

Groundbreaking as these discoveries were, the “biochemical” factors responsible for Dr Rizvin’s observation were physical and, generally speaking, considered to be outside of conscious control. So, our understanding of DNA had been given a good shaking; perhaps it wasn’t quite as static as we first thought, but we hadn’t quite reached a paradigm-busting point in our understanding.

Cue, stage left…. Dr Ian Weaver and collaborators (including noted biologists Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney), who reported that DNA expression was, in fact, so pliable that even (!) behaviour could cause it to change.

In their experiment, (Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior; Weave Ian C G et al.; Nature Neuroscience 7, 847 – 854 (2004)) two groups of rat pups were raised by mothers who were either nurturing or neglectful. The results showed that in the neglected pups, hippocampaactive-inactivel DNA was highly methylated, and this stood in contrast to the virtually complete absence of methylation in the nurtured pups. The reduction in transcription caused by the high levels of methylation meant that the neglected pups formed fewer glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus (crucial to stress management). It is posited that this was a major contributory factor to the neglected group being more socially withdrawn and less calm than their more fortunate lab-fellows. The authors concluded that this showed “that an epigenomic state of a gene can be established through behavioral programming, and it is potentially reversible.”

Subsequent work, by Dr Eric Nestler, has also indicated that such behaviourally induced epigenetic shifts are not restricted to the formative years but can occur in adulthood too. And, perhaps more surprisingly, it seems that they can also be passed down to the next generation.

Nestler, who is Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai school of medicine, New York, reported one study in which the off-spring of a group of bullied male mice where found to be hypersensitive to stress, despite never having had any contact with their bullied fathers. He noted that: ‘It was not a subtle effect; the offspring were dramatically more susceptible to developing signs of depression.” mice

To maintain our perspective, Nestler has expressed some caution about how far such transgenerational transmission might occur. In a 2012 interview with Sandra Aamodt, from (published 11/06/2012 ), Nestler noted that: “Other labs have taken that result out several generations. But when we harvested the sperm from the stressed mice and impregnated another group of normal females through in vitro fertilization, the offspring of those mice largely lacked any difference in stress responses.” Nestler continued: “There are caveats, and we need to do more difficult experiments, but those are the kinds of things that we’re thinking of.” “But, he concludes “I think epigenetics is going to be huge. It explains how the environment interacts with the genome to produce a response or an adaptation.

So, it would seem that behavioural epigenetics is here to stay, but where’s the evidence for all of this applying to humans?

Well, lets close by refering to just one paper, that is illustrative of the expanding body of work supporting the validity of the behavioural epigenetic paradigm in people too.

Eric Nestler
” I think epigenetics is going to be huge”

Published in the open-access journal PLOS One (Manoj K. Bhasin, Jeffery A. Dusek, Bei-Hung Chang, et al, May 2013), researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, Massachusetts and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard, trained 26 adult participants in various relaxation techniques and blood tests enabled the analysis of 22,000 different gene sequences.

The results showed that relaxation practice enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.

In the authors own words, they conclude that their findings : “for the first time [in human subjects]  indicate that relaxation response elicitation, particularly after long-term practice… mitigates stress.” Nuff said?

And the take-away message of all this?

Well, it’s virtually certain that we’re only at the beginning of our behavioural epigenetics expedition; so keep watching this space but, above all, keep relaxed… and give yourself some control over the course of your own future journey.

To explore non-pharmaceutical options to promote relaxation and manage stress. please visit our main website here or, if you prefer, explore all areas of our website by heading to our homepage, here


Study reveals insidious and far-reaching damage wreaked by lost sleep

Getting too little sleep has been shown to have bad effects on the heart, and many studies have linked it to hypertension. Now, a new study, published in the journal Hypertension reports that reduced amounts of sleep is associated with further negative markers, especially for people whose sleep occurs outside of typical night-time hours.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Chicago sleep lab, used a fairly small sample size – 26 healthy young adults – who were assigned to a week of reduced sleep; just five hours every night. Half of the subjects slept during normal night-time hours, the other half slept during the day, much like most shift-workers would do.

The study measured day-time blood pressure and heart rate. It also took readings of urinary noradrenaline (a stress hormone that can cause increases in blood pressure), and heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation in the gap between each individual heart beat.

Blood pressure didn’t change in either group but for all subjects, sleep loss resulted in a higher day-time heart rate.

The subjects who slept during the day registered even more changes; they had higher levels of urinary noradrenaline and less heart rate variability at night, when they were awake.

Commenting on this finding, Dr. Daniela Grimaldi, the lead author of the paper, noted that: “There is a general awareness that when heart rate variability is reduced, this is a marker for increased cardiovascular risk.”

Dr. Grimaldi and her associates were particularly alarmed by what they saw during slow-wave sleep, which is usually the most restorative phase of the sleep cycle. She notes that normally: “Blood pressure goes down, heart rate goes down, it really allows the body to recover,” however, in both sleep-deprived groups, heart rate showed an increase, and this was particularly marked in the subjects who slept during the day – suggesting that for people who do shift work, their bodies may simply not be able to fully recover.

Changing working hours is not possible for everybody, so the question arising from these findings is what, if anything, can be done to neutralise the cardiovascular risk inherent to shift work?

Well, perhaps the most obvious answer is to reduce all the other lifestyle factors that can serve to further raise cardiovascular risk. So, healthy eating and some regular exercise would be a good start here; but can anything be done to directly address the reduction of HRV brought about by poor sleep?

Well, it will probably come as a surprise to most people to discover that, thanks to recent technological advances, the measurement of HRV is a physiological metric which has leapt out of the laboratory and come within reach of most peoples pockets. What this means is that it’s now possible to accurately measure and, more importantly, train to increase your HRV – with all the positive effect of reducing cardiovascular risk, that this likely bring.

Computer-based biofeedback systems, such as the StressChecker®, or mind-body training programmes, such as those produced by Wild Divine, work by measuring HRV and then helping their users to stabilise and increase it; and for those whose loss of sleep is down to insomnia, there is also the option of using a CES devices (such as the Oasis Pro or Alpha-Stim AID) which safely deliver a tiny microcurrent through clips attached to the earlobe and have been proven by numerous research studies to safely and effectively improve sleeping patterns, as well as help to ameliorate possible underlying causes poor sleep (such as low mood). If lack of sleep is caused by disturbances in the body’s natural clock (the circadian rhythm) for example by shift work or jetlag, than light therapy devices will re-set the biological clock and promote a return to normal sleeping paterns. Propeaq and ReTimer both produce well-researched, highly effective and very portable light glasses.

To read more about these and other possible options to help with poor sleep, just drop-in to the sleep and insomnia section of our main website here, or visit our home page here


Train hard or train intelligently: Can Heart Rate Variability (HRV) help athletes to optimise their gains?

Given the fact that no two runners respond to the same training in the same way, getting a training programme right can be as much of an art as it is a science.

Quantifying how hard you’re training with simple measurements, such as heart rate or the traditional constituents of training (mileage, intensity, frequency) will reflect the effort you’re putting into your training but, what it won’t do is assess your actual response to that training.

Just like measuring how much petrol you put into your car won’t tell you exactly how far you can drive before the tank is empty again, (that depends on engine performance, how you drive the car etc), simply knowing that you ran 40 miles in a week can’t really tell you if you’ll end up running a faster marathon.

If only training adaptation was as simple as the equation: training + nutrition + sleep – life stress – every other hassle = adaptation!

If it was that straightforward, then changing one or more of those variables should result in improvements in fitness. But unfortunately it just isn’t that clear-cut and much of the research into genetics and exercise is devoted to understanding what separates the training “responders” from the “non-responders.”

However, the question of how to assess and quantify the effects of training on the body may finally have an easy, and surprisingly accessible answer.

Thanks to recent technological advances, it has now become possible to measure a physiological function called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). And best of all, the means of measuring this metric has broken out of the clinic lab and is now within reach of most people’s pockets.

So what is Heart Rate Variability?

HRV reflects the heart’s automatic regulation. Specifically, it measures the time gap between each heartbeat and is usually assessed while the person is resting. It may appear to us that the gap between each of our heartbeats is always the same, particularly when we’re resting. In fact, it isn’t. Tiny, millisecond differences occur in the length of gap between each heartbeat – and research has linked a high HRV – that’s a greater variation between each heart beat – as a marker of the heart’s ability to adapt, and so a sign of fitness. The converse of this is that a low HRV is linked to fatigue and over-training.

And what does this mean for sportsmen and women?

Well, in practical terms, it means that HRV can be used to determine your response to training in general; and even your response to specific types of training.

In a 2016 study, presented in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers examined the effects of an 8-week HRV guided running programme on running performance. Forty recreational endurance runners were divided into an HRV-guided experimental training group and a traditional, predefined training group (trained according to a predefined training programme that included 2-3 moderate/high intensity training sessions/week). For the experimental HRV group, the timing of higher intensity training was based solely on HRV, measured every morning. If the subject’s HRV was within a normal, acceptable range, higher intensity workouts were programmed. If HRV fell outside that range, then low intensity training was performed instead.

The researchers found that at the end of the 8-week training period, only the HRV–guided training group improved its performance in a 3000m running trial, even though they performed less moderate and high intensity training sessions compared with the predefined training group. The study concluded: “The timing of moderate and high intensity training sessions according to HRV is more optimal compared to subjectively predefined training.” In short, following a training platreadmilln out of a book or off of a website may not optimally improve performance.

HRV shows promise in identifying what types of exercise are individually optimal before an exercise programme is started. In another study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports in 2015, researchers measured the response of recreational runners to either high volume or high intensity training. By assessing HRV before the training period started, the researchers hoped to better understand how individuals would respond to different intensities and amounts of exercise.

At the end of the 16-week programme, the study indicated that the runners with a higher HRV improved to a greater degree with high-intensity training while those with a lower HRV responded better to a higher training volume rather than training intensity. The researchers concluded that: “HRV may be used to individualise endurance training in recreational endurance runners, especially to adjust training volume and intensity, to achieve greater improvements in endurance performance.

It seems that HRV may hold the key to telling runners how to train for maximum gain before they start a training programme. Having a high HRV may indicate that you can take a greater dose of high intensity training; whilst a low HRV may be a red flag, or at least a yellow one, warning that long, slow distance training is needed instead of intense practice.

Wouldn’t you like to know the most efficient way to train for your next event?

The lead author of both of the above studies, Dr. Ville Vesterinen of Finland’s Research Institute for Olympic Sports, recommends that between 3 and 4 HRV assessments are carried out each week to achieve a good, overall view of the current training status. Dr Vesterinen states: “Given the large day-to-day variation, it is better to use long-term (e.g. 7-day) trends rather than one single HRV value. It is also essential to standardise the assessment protocol – time of day, length of measurement – to ensure good quality information.

Measuring heart rlogo-stresschecker_transparantate variability used to require complicated cardiac monitoring in a laboratory. Now, all it takes is a small ear-clip sensor, some computer software (to analyse the data) and, of course, a computer!

The StressChecker HRV package, produced by Respilex, a Netherlands-based biotech company, is an inexpensive, easy to use piece of kit, that enable athletes, body builders and other sportsmen and women to add HRV assessment to their training arsenal.

Visit the StressChecker page for more details, or just go to the main Peak Health Online website to explore the full product range.

Using HRV undoubtedly helps to take the guesswork out of training, so instead of the hit and miss approach, of trying different programmes to see which one works for you, the information gleaned from measuring your HRV could serve to quickly turn you from a training non-responder to someone showing real gains.

This post is adapted from an original article by Ian McMahan, which first appeared on, published 22nd March 2016

A Very Warm Welcome To The Peak Health Online Blog… and our first ever post!

Perhaps a brief introduction would be in order right now, to tell you what we’re about and what you should expect from us in future and so, without further ado, here goes…

Portrait of Caucasian teen boy holding blank sign above his head standing against red background.Peak Health Online was established in 2016 as an internet shop with the prime objective of bringing a select range of home-use, health and well-being products to health professionals and the general public alike.

The rapid advances in digital and other technologies over the past few years has made possible the development of a wide range of health devices for home-use which, until recently, would only have been available for use in hospitals and specialist clinics.

This has resulted in a proliferation of devices and gadgetry onto the market, many within range of most people’s budget. But how can anyone wishing to benefit from these technological advances decide which of the many products might by effective and which fail to live up to the marketing hype?

Well, before Peak Health Online offer any products for sale, we consult with our health advisers. They use their medical and psychological knowledge and expertise to review each product’s details, the clinical research behind them and their likely efficacy. If a product receives our experts’ seal of approval, then we will add it to our stock list, and if it doesn’t make the grade, then you will never see it on our website.

This review process means that our product range is small, but then our objective is not to sell “all things, to all men” (and women), but to bring only the best in home-use health technology to our clients.

And this blog…?

Well, our aim is for this blog to serve as a health and well-being news and education resource, not only for our clients but for the public at large. No doubt we’ll occassionally post reviews about products too, though rarely so, and only if these are newsworthy. This is not a “selling” blog; so if you want the latest on health gizmo’s and that kind of thing, then you’ll need to pop-over to the the main Peak Health Online website when  you’ve finished here.

We’ll carefully choose what we post about in this blog, if only because (as we all know by now), just because something makes a buzz on the internet or the TV news, it doesn’t mean that it’s worthy of serious consideration.

Health fads come and go, and so we’ll take care to try and ensure that the only articles, research and developments you’ll ever read about on our blog are the ones that pass muster with our clinical team, whose yardstick for approval depends on clinical evidence and robust data.

So do drop-by every now and again and catch-up with health news that’s worth keeping up with.

The Best of Health To You!