Epigenetics and intelligence: How environmental factors impact our genes

We often say that our behavior is determined by both our genes and the environment we live in. But did you know that environmental factors can impact our genes and change the way they work?

That’s exactly what the field of epigenetics is all about. Epigenetics is a field of science that examines the way environmental factors can influence gene expression and the personality traits that are passed down from one generation to the next. 

The same applies to intelligence — it turns out that environmental changes can impact our intelligence and cognitive performance. How so?

Let’s discuss 6 ways environmental factors impact our genes and reveal the link between epigenetics and intelligence.

What is the link between epigenetics and intelligence?

Have you ever wondered whether your intelligence changes throughout your lifespan? Believe it or not, your IQ and cognitive performance change based on the environment you’re living in.

Let me explain what this means.

The study conducted by the researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin found that epigenetic changes caused by situational factors can lead to changes in our intelligence. What are those environmental factors?

It can be anything from chronic anxiety to excessive stress and adverse life experiences. But surprisingly, positive situational factors such as satisfying social relationships or achieving success can also alter our intelligence.

How do these environmental factors work?

Well, if we take the example of chronic stress, it has been shown to alter the expression of genes involved in brain function, which can impair cognitive performance. 

Similarly, exposure to toxins or a deficiency in certain nutrients can also affect gene expression and potentially impair cognitive development.

On the other hand, certain environmental factors, such as physical activity and learning new things, have been shown to have positive effects on brain function and cognitive performance, possibly through changes in gene expression.

According to the study published in Translational Psychiatry, we can explain the mechanism behind this impact by understanding the way dopamine is regulated in your body.

Yes, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a significant link between how dopamine is regulated in our bodies and how we perform in IQ tests.

In particular, whenever negative environmental factors such as stress slow down the release of dopamine in our bodies, the dopamine receptor gene is silenced. This epigenetic modification, in turn, results in lower results in IQ tests.

Keep in mind that epigenetic changes do not alter the underlying DNA sequence. All they can affect is which genes are turned on or off, or how active they are. 

So guess what? 

The changes caused by the way epigenetic factors affect your genes are completely reversible. This means that changing the environment and surrounding yourself with positive situational factors instead of stress and adversity might help you perform better in IQ tests.

6 ways environmental factors impact our genes & Intelligence

1) Nutrient deficiency can lead to cognitive impairments

Eating healthy food, full of nutrients has become a trend in today’s pop culture. Many people are becoming more conscious of the food they eat and are seeking out healthy options to fuel their bodies. 

And indeed — a healthy diet can help to improve overall physical and mental health, as well as reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 

Believe it or not, our nutrition is one of those environmental factors that can directly affect our genes as well.

Yes, even though it can be hard to imagine, the food you eat every day can impact your genes and lead to changes in your cognitive functions and intelligence, as a result.

The truth is that the nutrients we consume can influence gene expression and brain development. For example, a deficiency in certain vitamins or minerals can lead to cognitive impairments. 

Personally, a year ago, I struggled with severe anemia. I had always been someone who didn’t pay much attention to my diet, and I often found myself skipping meals or choosing unhealthy options. 

The result? I was not getting enough of the nutrients that my body needed to function properly, particularly iron. 

At first, I didn’t realize that my poor nutrition was causing my anemia. I just assumed that I was always feeling tired and run down because I was busy with university and work. 

But as time went on, my symptoms became more severe. I found it difficult to concentrate, and my cognitive performance suffered. I was struggling to remember things, and I often felt like my brain was in a fog.

The main thing I was worried about was a clear decline in my cognitive functions. I was seriously worried that something was wrong with my intelligence. 

And it seems like I was right because nutrition is an epigenetic factor that can affect our genes and the way we perform on IQ tests.

That’s why adequate nutrition is necessary for the proper functioning of all the body’s systems, including the brain.

Keep in mind that adequate intake of these nutrients has been linked to improved cognitive function and academic performance. 

For example, studies have shown that children with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet perform better on tests of cognitive function, such as memory and attention.

So, chances are that healthy nutrition can also result in improved intelligence and better cognitive performance. 

2) Chronic stress slows down cognitive functioning

Ever notice how much your stress can ruin the work you’re doing and disrupt your daily functioning? 

Well, this time as well, the reason can be found in the link between epigenetics and intelligence. 

The truth is that chronic stress can lead to changes in gene expression that affect brain function and cognitive performance.

Yes, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that chronic stress can have a negative impact on cognitive functioning and intelligence. 

According to studies, repeated exposure to stressful conditions has negative cognitive outcomes. Particularly, stress can impair your cognitive flexibility, attention, and memory.

No wonder it can also impact your intelligence and restrict you from performing well on IQ tests

How does stress work as an environmental factor that can impact our genes?

When we are under chronic stress, our bodies release stress hormones such as cortisol, which can interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. 

Cortisol can damage brain cells and disrupt the connections between neurons, leading to problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making.

On the other hand, the study that I mentioned above discussed how it slows down the release of dopamine, which provides a sense of pleasure and positive emotions.

What’s more important?

Chronic stress can also affect the way that genes are expressed, which can impact intelligence. 

This process, known as epigenetics, involves changes in gene expression that are caused by environmental factors rather than changes to the actual DNA sequence. 

Specifically, the stress hormone cortisol can alter the way that genes are expressed, leading to changes in brain development and function. 

These changes can affect intelligence and cognitive function, and may even lead to the development of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

That’s why it’s important to manage stress in order to maintain cognitive function and protect overall health. It seems like that’s how you can save your intelligence from disruption as well.

3) Exposure to toxins disrupts normal gene expression

If you’ve ever heard of the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, you probably understand how certain chemicals and pollutants can disrupt normal gene expression and impair cognitive development.

The reason is that exposure to toxins can be an epigenetic factor that impacts intelligence by disrupting normal gene expression.

What types of toxins can have an effect on your intelligence?

Well, all kinds of toxins are substances that are harmful to the body. They usually come from a variety of sources, such as the environment, food, and household products.

Whether it’s exposure to air pollution, certain harmful chemicals, heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, or just excessive consumption of alcohol and the use of certain drugs, one thing is for sure — all of these environmental factors can alter gene expression and disrupt the normal functioning of cells in the brain.

As a result, they can lead to impairments in brain development and cognitive function.

Let me discuss an example.

Lead is a toxic metal that can disrupt the expression of genes involved in brain development and function. 

In order to understand how exactly lead can affect our cognitive function, I tried to find specific studies, and I found one, conducted in 2022, that proves the effect of lead exposure on IQ test scores in children under the age of 12.

Based on this study, children who are exposed to lead have been found to have lower IQ scores and impaired cognitive function compared to those who have not been exposed.

But this is just one of many examples of how exposure to toxins disrupts normal gene expression and impairs brain development.

This means we should all limit our exposure to toxins in order to protect our cognitive health and intelligence.

4) Sleep deprivation alters our epigenome

No one argues that sleep is a critical component of overall health, and it plays a vital role in brain function and cognitive performance.

But can you imagine that your intelligence level could be affected by your sleep quality?

I’m not saying that your intelligence will decrease if you don’t sleep enough every day but the truth is that sleep is an epigenetic factor that can influence intelligence by affecting gene expression.

Yes, one more environmental factor that can impact our genes is sleep quality. As a matter of fact, adequate sleep is important for brain health and cognitive function, while disrupted sleep patterns can alter gene expression.

During sleep, the brain is actively engaged in important processes for learning and memory consolidation. Lack of sleep or disrupted sleep patterns can alter gene expression and impair brain function.

Considering this, you might naturally wonder: 

“What if I’m deprived of sleep chronically?”

Well, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to impairments in cognitive function, including memory, attention, and decision-making. 

It has also been associated with an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

That having been said, even though you’re not necessarily going to face such serious problems in memory or decision-making, chances are that your cognitive functions will be impaired to some degree.

That’s why you should pay attention to your sleep quality. Just remember that adequate sleep is necessary for optimal cognitive performance and overall health.

5) Satisfying social interaction makes us become more intelligence

Have you ever dreamed of having satisfying social interactions with people and becoming more and more intelligent as an extra benefit?

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here, but as a matter of fact, social connections and experiences actually impact gene expression and influence brain development and cognitive function.

In fact, a scientific article published by Sage Publications claims that socializing can actually make us smarter than we are. 

According to a 2008 study conducted by Oscar Ybarra and his colleagues, even simple social interaction can promote general cognitive functioning. And you know what?

Considering our basic need for affiliation and socialization, it’s not really surprising to me.

Whether we like it or not, humans are social animals, and we tend to form strong social bonds with others.

The need for social connections is a fundamental human trait and is thought to have evolved because it provided an evolutionary advantage in terms of survival and reproduction.

So guess what?

Social interactions can be beneficial for our physical and mental health, and they can also enhance cognitive function and our overall well-being.

What if you’re deprived of social interaction? Will your cognitive functions be impaired?

Well, studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

People who are socially isolated or lonely tend to have a worse cognitive function and score lower on tests of intelligence, such as IQ tests.

One possible explanation for this is that social interaction stimulates the brain and can lead to the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, such as oxytocin and dopamine, which are involved in social bonding and reward. 

These substances can affect brain function and potentially enhance cognitive performance.

Therefore, so-called “mental exercise through simple socializing” can indeed positively affect your intelligence and overall cognitive functioning. 

6) Learning new things will form new connections between your neurons

And the final environmental factor affecting your genes that I’d like to discuss is learning and enrichment. 

The fact of the matter is that engaging in activities that challenge the brain, such as learning new things or being exposed to diverse experiences, can alter gene expression and potentially enhance intelligence. 

Wondering how this works?

Well, have you ever heard about the term “neuroplasticity”?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to experience. It’s the process by which the brain reorganizes itself in response to changes in the environment.

Learning new things can be exactly that kind of change.

This process is thought to be a key mechanism by which the brain adapts and learns throughout life.

The thing is that when you’re learning a new thing, new connections are formed between your neurons. The more you learn, the stronger these connections become, and the better your cognitive functions develop.

Needless to say, this can alter your genes too and positively affect your intelligence.

For example, a student who studies for an exam and learns new information about a particular subject may improve their performance on a test and potentially increase their intelligence in that particular subject.

Similarly, an adult who takes up a new hobby or learns a new skill, such as playing a musical instrument or learning a new language, may improve their cognitive function and potentially increase their intelligence.

This means that elderly individual who engages in activities that challenge their brain, such as learning new things or participating in social activities, may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and potentially increase their intelligence.

Final thoughts

To sum up, epigenetics and intelligence are two closely related concepts that are influenced by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors.

Keep in mind that nutrition, stress, exposure to toxins, exercise, sleep, social interaction, and learning and enrichment are just some of the many ways in which environmental factors can affect our genes and influence intelligence.

So, try to be mindful of your surroundings, regulate the situational factors that affect your everyday life, and as a result, you might get the chance to improve your overall intelligence and cognitive functioning. 

Picture of Nato Lagidze

Nato Lagidze

Nato is a writer and a researcher with an academic background in psychology. She investigates self-compassion, emotional intelligence, psychological well-being, and the ways people make decisions. Writing about recent trends in the movie industry is her other hobby, alongside music, art, culture, and social influences. She dreams to create an uplifting documentary one day, inspired by her experiences with strangers.

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