Ahhhhhh, the age old excuse of, “I have no control over this because it’s in my genes” may not carry as much weight (pun intended) these days. We all know someone, or maybe that someone is us, who blame their current or even future health problems on, “it’s in my genes”. What if I told you that, although there is a certain degree of truth with “it’s in my genes,” that your current and future health can be “altered” by certain choices we make in the present and future? This brings up the topic of EPIGENETICS. Topics such as this bring out the nerdy side of me so if you are a nerd like me, you can click on the links I provide and read more about the science behind epigenetics. Otherwise just read this post and consider the topic and how it applies to your own life.
This is a decent article on the history of epigenetics: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941222/
So, to keep it simple, I will provide a few examples of what all of this means. Take obesity for example. Or maybe obesity plus type 2 diabetes. This is a massive problem in the US and the world and the problem is only getting worse as time goes on. Maybe obesity or obesity + type 2 diabetes runs in your family. Maybe your mom or dad, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, etc suffered from obesity and diabetes so you are CONVINCED you are going to develop this and all the bad stuff that comes with it (lots of meds and doctors visits, checking blood sugar, battling weight with no improvement, shame, fatigue, increase risk of heart disease and stroke, etc) so you have simply accepted that, “it’s in my genes.” The somewhat emerging research in epigenetics suggests that may not be entirely true. Although a family history and strong genetic link to certain diseases is a real deal, we do have some input on if/when these health conditions show up and plague us. Our ENVIRONMENT and the CHOICES we make can directly influence the EXPRESSION of certain genetic traits.
Our modern lifestyle of stress, lack of sleep, inactivity, poor food choices, chemical addiction (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol) and unhealthy social relationships has a influence on our gene expression–the factors I just listed would promote expression of the “bad genes” we have inherited.
I’ll make up an example:
“Sally” is a 42 year old mother of 3 children. She works 50 hours a week in an administrative position with a large corporation after years of hard work and “climbing the ladder”. Her job is stressful to say the least. Her sleep is poor and she only gets 4-5 hours of cruddy sleep per night. Her children are grade school and Jr High ages so they are all involved in multiple activities so when she rushes out of work after her 10 or 11 hour day she is running to and from her kids’ activities. Due to all of this her food choices are poor. She doesn’t plan ahead and finds whatever is convenient. She has bought into the “low fat and lots of grains” myth and tries to make healthy choices of yogurt, whole grains, low sugar cereal and diet soda. Despite this her weight has creeped up over the years and she is not happy with the way she looks and feels. She blames some of this on having children and the difficulty to keep weight off after this as well as her family history. Her mother and siblings are all a bit overweight. Type 2 diabetes runs in the family and her mother and maternal aunts and uncles are all a bit overweight/obese and all have type 2 diabetes. Some of them started having really severe health consequences due to this as they aged. She is convinced this is the path for her due to her “genes”. She has tried to lose weight and desires to lose weight but isn’t successful. She has tried several fad diet programs and has had some success, but it was all temporary, difficult to stick to and not practical for her life. She has been in several exercise programs but actually found herself to feel worse and even gain more fat while doing these, plus, getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go to “body combat” was not sustainable. Due to her stressful life and low self esteem, she and her husband do not have as good of a relationship as they both desire—she simply doesn’t have the time and energy to invest in their marriage and they are both pulled in opposite directions most of the time. They also have some financial stress as they really try to “keep up with the Joneses” and have a house that costs too much and they each drive new cars that are too expensive and their climbing debt is a constant weight on their relationship. She recently had her yearly wellness visit with her medical provider. Her fasting blood sugar has been steadily creeping up over the years and is now just over 100 (sort of a “pre-diabetes” state). Her weight seems to climb little by little with each appointment. Her triglycerides are also skyrocketing despite trying to eat a “low fat” diet. Her provider encourages a “low fat diet and more exercise” and schedules her for another visit in 6 months to keep an eye on her blood sugar and triglycerides. If these continue to worsen then they will have to start discussing starting some medications to “bring these levels down.” She feels discouraged but not surprised because of her bad “genes”.
I think we can all relate to this story to one degree or another. Maybe we know this person. Maybe this person is us. “Sally” is living a lifestyle that promotes the expression of all of the negative aspects to her genetic makeup. Her body was not designed to live the lifestyle she is living. Let’s assume Sally hires a good primal health coach and/or gets established with a good functional medicine practitioner and starts making some healthy changes and choices in her life. For example, her health coach works with her initially on improving her eating. Sally starts focusing on “real food” and reduces/eliminates the processed, carb and sugar laden junk she has been consuming for years. In addition she drops her gym membership (yes I said “drops”) and gets out of the “body combat” class and instead just focuses on staying generally active. She had a standing desk at work installed and takes a 15 minute walk during her lunch break most days. She and her husband now go for a 2 mile walk in the evenings so they can talk and catch up a bit. She also made a point to get off of her computer/tablet no later than 8 pm so she can make sure her sleep is not affected by staring at the light of the screen. She is taking some natural supplements in the evening as advised by her functional medicine practitioner to help her with sleep (such as magnesium citrate or glycinate) and is “lights out” by 10 pm and she sleeps until 5-6 am so most nights she is getting 7-8 hours of sleep. Over the next few months she is feeling more energized, the weight is slowly but steadily coming off and she generally just feels more healthy. At her 6 month follow up with her provider her fasting glucose was now down to 85 and her triglycerides were also significantly decreased. Her weight was down 16 pounds and she was able to avoid starting any new medications.
Sally was able to make some healthy changes in her life and change the way her genes were being expressed. She was on the fast path to obesity and type 2 diabetes and all the bad things that come with that but she made some simple, healthy choices that helped to avert, or at least delay, that process. Am I saying she will NEVER develop type 2 diabetes? No, not by any means. There are too many factors involved to predict that. Maybe instead of developing type 2 diabetes at the age of 45 it will be delayed until 65. I don’t really know. But what I do know to believe is that our lifestyle and the choices we make can alter how our genes our expressed. Thanks for reading.
Another link for the nerds: https://www.nature.com/subjects/epigenetics