When Moving Changes You Biologically

A view over Lake Geneva from Lutry, Switzerland. July 12, 2019.

A view over Lake Geneva from Lutry, Switzerland. July 12, 2019.

A change in circumstances can change us as people: Going from employed to jobless or to entrepreneur. From child-free to parent. From single to married. All these life shifts change our stressors, our safe havens, our support networks, our friendships and acquaintanceships, and our outlooks on the world.

Examples here abound: I’ve seen huge shifts in the mindsets and habits of friends who have gone from employee to business owner. Personally, I’ve seen the gradual adjustment in my lifestyle, perspectives, and routines in changing from long-term singlehood to the life of a wife. (It still surprises me to say that.) Everyone I know who has had a child underestimated the affect the new baby would have on the rhythm of their lives, mental states, eating habits, and relationships with friends and partners.

Further, living in a different place—not just popping through its tourist hotspots, but learning how to get things done, live your life, work and build your professional career in a new place, meld into a new culture and make friends and meet people—you gain new relationships, benefit from new perspectives, and encounter new cultures and languages and insights into history, human nature, and the world we all share. I don’t believe most tourist travel changes us. I believe living in different places does.

For example, I’d visited London before I lived there, and yet I had no understanding of the cultural differences between Americans and English until I did. In living in London for a few years, I saw how bathing in U.S. cultural myths had shaped me—and I saw that our cultural perspectives didn’t necessarily have more truth than the cultural perspectives of another place. Further, I understood English worldviews far better than I could have understood them if I’d simply spent a week visiting the Tower of London, taking rides in black cabs, and having high tea at a fancy hotel—and I understood enough to know that I still didn’t fully understand.

However, maybe sustained changes in circumstances and long-term moves from one place to another affect us more fundamentally than simple alterations in our thinking about the world.

Epigenetics and Who Are You, Really?

Recent encounters with discussions of epigenetics have me wondering: Do different places change us biologically, not just psychologically? (Acknowledging, of course, that the line between biology and psychology has fluidity—if a line exists at all.)

Epigenetics studies how genes differ in expression based on developmental processes. As a simple example, consider that you have brain cells and heart cells. Your brain cells and your heart cells have the same foundational DNA—yours—yet they turn on and off aspects of this DNA to serve entirely different functions.

Scientists have discovered epigenetic changes related to environment as well, which they call gene–environment interaction, or GxE. Many diseases, as we all know from exposure to public-service announcements over our lifetimes, come from changes in our cells due to our environments. For example, if you have light skin, you will have a higher genetic susceptibility to skin cancer—though you likely won’t develop it if you stay out of the sun. You didn’t inherit skin cancer—skin cancer doesn’t lurk in your DNA, waiting to surprise you—yet you inherited a susceptibility to it. Exposure to sun can influence the way your cells express their DNA, thereby causing the problematic cell division involved in skin cancer.

Some genetic epidemiologists even posit that social adversity, including severe emotional shock and deprivation, can affect genes, and that these genetic changes can pass down to offspring over the course of generations.

Epigenetics and Living Abroad

In reviewing all this GxE research, it seems to me that time spent in a different place and in different circumstances over a sustained period will change a person beyond simple mind-expansion through exposure to different ideas.

After all, in a different place, you eat different foods grown and prepared in different environments. You breathe different air. You experience, in general, different environmental benefits and stressors, from climate to pollution (and lack thereof) to light patterns and beyond. You drink different water and other fluids. You bathe in different water, even.

These external factors, when sustained over time, must change the expression of DNA in such a way that a person who has moved to a new locale becomes, cellularly, a different person than the ostensibly same person who had lived in a previous place. Or so it seems to me, based on my rudimentary epigenetic understanding.

If this theory has truth—and it feels like a given, though perhaps my view here has too much simplicity and too loose a scientific understanding—I wonder how much time it takes for these biological changes to occur after sustained exposure to environmental influences.

Different cells have different life spans, from my limited understanding. Your stomach cells may live only one or two days before they turn over. Conversely, it seems that brain cells in your cerebellum stay with you almost your entire existence. Stomach cells may change their DNA expression due to environmental factors more quickly than brain cells, then. However, we produce new brain cells during our lives and other parts of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, turn their cells over more quickly than do cells in the cerebellum. Further, we know that brain chemistry changes in response to diet, exposure to chemicals that break the blood-brain barrier, and other factors—so could these cells still gain benefits or harms from the person’s environment? (My guess: Yes.) One study that supports this idea found that long-term exposure to air pollution caused brain changes, causing cognitive declines.

And so: At what point after my move to Lausanne will I evolve into a different person?

P.S.—Anyone out there an epigeneticist? If so, I’d love to interview you on this topic and update this article accordingly.