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An illustration of a human DNA molecule

You Can Change Your Genes

We can’t change the genes our parents gave us, but we can definitely make sure the bad ones are hidden away so they get ignored AND don’t get passed down to our kids.

What is epigenetics?

In 1948 a Polish neuroscientist named Jerzy Konorski used the term neuroplasticity to describe changes he observed in the structure of the cells that make up our brain, our neurones. Until that time, it was believed that the brain was a static organ that could not be moulded or changed. It took another twelve years for this concept of neuroplasticity to become widely accepted.

The frontiers of science are expanding all the time, opening up a deeper understanding of how we function. Just as we now know and accept that the development of new pathways in the brain can occur at any age, we also know that the environment inside you exerts immense influence over how genes are expressed. These changes in gene expression can be passed down to our descendants. This is the field of science known as epigenetics that observes how our behaviour and environment can affect our genes and influence how they work.

It’s a revolutionary realization that whilst our genetics are inherited, our actual gene expression within our lifetime is not set in stone. How we live our lives, the mental and physical environment we create within ourselves, can determine whether certain genes get switched on or off – genes that may code for longevity, diabetes even cancer. 

Colourful illustration of a human cell

Our bodies are made up of over 37 trillion cells. Within each of these cells is a nucleus which is a super library of DNA. Every single one of these 37 trillion libraries contains exactly the same information. Our body produces chemical signals and proteins all the time that effectively act as librarians, retrieving particular books of DNA – genes – from these vast libraries and tucking some data deeply away. These DNA books can be of varying length and contain instructions for gene expression from the shape of your little toe to how long your eyelashes are. They also contain recipe books for conditions like heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis and every other chronic condition you can think of.  

Throughout your life the contents of your libraries don’t change, what does change are the books that your body is reading and therefore BECOMING, depending on what the librarians are up to.

And what the librarians do is significantly influenced by how you live your life.  A number of lifestyle factors have been identified that are involved in epigenetic modification. These include:

  • Dietary habits 
  • Obesity
  • Physical activity
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Psychological stress
  • Working night shifts
 

All of these elements can trigger chemical patterns in the body that determine how your librarians are working and what books they are pulling out of the DNA vaults and therefore which genes are being switched on or off. Recipe books for chronic illnesses may just be catalogued in your DNA libraries, doing no harm. It is when we start adding the ingredients for disease to our bodies – things like stress, excess sugar, saturated fats, alcohol, tobacco etc – that the librarians get busy pulling books off the shelves and the body becomes unwell.

Colourful shelves filled with books in a library

Epigenetics and Chronic Disease

Epigenetics is self-empowerment. You can downgrade the likelihood of a disease expressing itself by improving the environment inside your body. Simple solutions to address all the factors above help maintain balance, reducing DNA errors and holding disease at bay. 

Living better doesn’t just help you, it helps your loved ones too. Your lifestyle choices leave a genetic imprint on your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. The genetic books you have pulled from your libraries as a result of your lifestyle, will be the same ones that are passed on to your kids.

Chronic illnesses have taken over as the leading global cause of mortality and morbidity with 90% of annual deaths due to the major chronic diseases of heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancer. Yet we know that these conditions are mostly lifestyle driven and, therefore, avoidable. 

The magic is that we can reduce the chemical cascades that lead to expression of genes that code for disease. We no longer need to feel resigned to getting a diagnosis because ‘it runs in the family’. 

We all know that smoking is bad for us, that we should cut down on alcohol, optimise our sleep, get more exercise, eat wholefoods and try to live less stressed lives.  But did you know that there are several scientific studies proving how stress-reducing practices, in particular meditation, effect gene expression directly?

Woman meditating in a white hall

A recent study showed that meditators had changes in sixty-one gene expression sites after one day of intensive meditation and these were sites rich in genes associated with immunity and ageing. This is measurable scientific evidence that meditation offers protection from infection and helps you stay biologically young!

Other studies have confirmed similar effects of regular meditation slowing the biological clock. Ageing occurs when genetic information is lost as cells replicate, resulting in poorer copies of the prototype. Meditation appears to protect DNA during cell replication so that the new copies we make remain high quality and very close in nature to the original cell. 

People are getting sicker from lifestyle-related diseases. 

 

This is only projected to worsen over the coming decades. But now you know that your health destiny is not necessarily pre-determined by your genes. Knowing what’s in your genome is only half the story. The behaviours, beliefs and thinking patterns that you have inherited are equally important. Illnesses that run in families often do so because of hereditary lifestyle and thinking habits. If we grow up learning poor lifestyle habits from our parents and guardians, then we are likely to suffer their same ill health and in turn pass that on to our children. 

Now more than ever is the time for a holistic mind, body, spirit approach to health to tackle this surging tidal wave of global disease. A single pronged pharmaceutical approach just isn’t sufficient. Maybe in addition to prescribing medication, doctors should be prescribing meditation!

If you have anything you want to ask, or if there’s a topic you’d like me to write about just let me know.

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