Your mom had breast cancer, dad had high blood pressure. Seems inevitable that you're headed for both -- or are you? Are bad genes really destiny or are they flexible, modifiable, even changeable? The answers -- and the roadmap to a longer, healthier life -- may lie in the ground-breaking new field of "epigenetics."
Epigenetics is the study of molecular mechanisms by which our environment controls our gene activity. Epigeneticists examine the factors and patterns that influence whether genes are turned on or off, are active or dormant. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the epigenome, which acts as a mechanism that tells your genes to switch on or off. The epigenome changes in response to signals. Signals come from inside the cell, from neighboring cells or from the outside world.
It is through the epigenome that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that pass from one generation to the next. Bottom line: While each of us inherits our own unique, hardwired, unchangeable version of the genetic code, epigenetic factors such as lifestyle and diet can radically change what our genes do.
Which means ....
... You have a lot more control over your health than you think! We've always assumed that age-related diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, stroke and cancer were inevitable consequences of aging, that our genes set the course and resistance was futile. But now, through our understanding of epigenetics, scientists have determined that this, happily, is not the case.
Turns out, it's not just your genes directing the show, but how you care for your genes with environmental, dietary and lifestyle choices that can influence how your genes behave. In other words, you can change how your genes are expressed. Stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors may activate chemical switches that turn genes on and off and regulate gene expression. Several studies have shown that changes in lifestyle cause changes in gene expression.
So, I can change how my genes behave?
There are thousands of genes that render you susceptible to the classic, chronic diseases so many people are experiencing today, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. But whether or not these genes are expressed, and blossom into disease, may be determined by how you live your life, how you eat, the toxins you're exposed to, the supplements you take, your beliefs and how you handle stress.
This means that though you may be susceptible to heart disease or diabetes, you do not necessarily have to succumb to them. That is, your genes are a predisposition, not a fate, and the expression of your genes is much more dynamic and modifiable than previously realized. Knowing you can influence your genetic destiny is an extremely empowering notion because it puts the ball back in your court, enabling you to take charge of your health and make small changes with enormous impact.
You mean I'm not a prisoner of bad genes?
We've all been taught that we're stuck with the genetic hand we were dealt. The good news is that's old thinking and a huge myth. In fact, most genes are not set in stone or fixed, but rather modifiable. We are born with a set of genes, which are inherited and unchangeable, such as body frame, hair and eye color. There are also certain genes that if you are born with, you will be disabled, have a serious childhood disease or even die early. But these unchangeable, unmodifiable genes represent less than 2 percent of our genetic makeup. Most of our genes are actually modifiable and can be turned on or off. In fact, you are changing your genetics daily and perhaps even hourly from the foods you eat, the air you breathe and even by the thoughts you think.
Does that mean you can turn genes on and off?
Bathing your genes in the right environment (good nutrients, food, thoughts and love), may turn the genes for health on and the "disease" genes off. It's possible that you could "turn on" genes that prevent chronic diseases and "turn off" oncogenes that promote breast cancer and prostate cancer, as well as turn off genes that cause inflammation and oxidative stress. Your genes are controlled by epigenetic coding that tells them to be expressed or not expressed -- which is completely controlled by your environment and lifestyle.
Are epigenetic changes passed on to my kids?
YES, it's called epigenetic inheritance. For many years we were secure in our beliefs that, no matter what we did to damage ourselves in terms of poor lifestyle choices, it only affected us. Our children would be born with a genetic clean slate. But now we are learning that this is not true, and epigenetic changes can be passed down for many generations. So, the lifestyle choices you make today affect not only you, but also your children and grandchildren. In other words, each of us has far greater responsibility than we ever imagined!
The good news in this grand picture of biological risk is that unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible. Though a mutated gene is unlikely to revert back to normal, a gene with defective epigenetic coding may very well be reprogrammed to reestablish a healthy pattern and continue to function. Bottom line: It's never too late, or too early to take charge of your body. Healthy habits nurture healthy genes. Your behavior now may change the course of your life and the generations to follow -- and that's a gift worth passing on.
Dr. Frank Lipman is an internationally recognized expert in the field of Integrative Medicine. He is the founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, where for over 20 years his personal brand of healing has helped thousands of people reclaim their vitality and recover their zest for life. Focused on sustainable wellness - instead of quick fixes -- he offers patients a customized blend of Western medicine with acupuncture, nutritional counseling, vitamins and herbs, relaxation techniques, physical therapy and bodywork. In 2010 he developed Eleven Eleven Wellness by Dr. Frank Lipman, a line of leading-edge supplements and health programs. He is the author of "Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again" and "Total Renewal: 7 Key Steps to Resilience, Vitality and Long-Term Health."