This idea that our life experiences, choices, and environment directly affect the genes of our descendants is an emerging branch of genetics known as epigenetics. A new study released by Mount Sinai hospital in New York found that the offspring of Holocaust survivors have altered stress hormones. The researchers did a genetic analysis of 32 Jewish men and women: the subjects fell into one of two groups, Holocaust survivors and those who lived outside of Europe during the war. They also studied their children.
Researchers discovered that survivors had lower levels of cortisol, which is consistent with someone who has undergone a stressful experience in their life. However, they also found that their children had the same lower levels of cortisol. When an individual encounters a stressful situation, cortisol helps regulate various changes in the body, like fluctuations in blood sugar, and even immune responses. They also discovered the Holocaust survivors were producing less of the enzyme to break down cortisol which made sense given that this allowed liver and kidney functions to operate with lower glucose levels during times of starvation — something all too common during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation. Those who were younger during the Holocaust had the lowest levels of cortisol and produced the lowest amount of the enzyme to break it down.