As a physician, I’ve heard all the excuses in the book. “Everyone in my family has hypertension. I was born with it.” Or “There’s no point in me changing my diet now. Its already too late and I can’t control my weight. Can I just have my Metformin refill?”
I remember when the 2010 Times magazine article (http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1952313-2,00.html) was released. At that time it was groundbreaking news. Your DNA is not your destiny?? How can this be? For eons, and in medical school, were told that your genetics are fixed, that your family history is a crucial contributor to your overall health and that you have very little control over this. Though through studying identical twins with matching DNA and following them after decades of varying environmental conditions, researchers noted that one would become overweight and the other would not. This article and many others since have blown up the field of epigenetics, the idea that the actions that we take, the environment that we are exposed to, and the choices we make, are much more influential on our health than our given DNA.
The whole thing, like, genes and genetics is like the cookbook you have — all the recipes are in your DNA but the way it gets expressed is determined by the circumstances you live in, like what you eat, how you sleep, how much you exercise, and even the things you think about have impact on the expression of your genes.
Daan Gutter, MD, Epigenetics Coach
This is huge and awesome news, but this personal responsibility can also be daunting. There is evidence that lifestyle choices like smoking and eating high sugar diets can increase the expression of obesity genes and decrease longevity genes, and the choices we make predispose our children, even before they are conceived, to disease and early death. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html), whether from exposure to alcoholism, verbal or physical abuse as a child, is also an area that is gaining more ground in wellness psychology circles over the past decade. This hugely influences our long term health and has been linked closely with obesity, poor relationships and low socioeconomic status.
When we build awareness of ACEs and address health with a trauma informed system, we improve resiliency and remove judgment. We empower individuals to take control of their health and can institute actionable tools that those affected can use to help work through some of the emotional traumas they have endured. This realization that our behaviors and even metabolic manifestations are a result of epigenetic shifts from prior emotional or physical traumas is so critical to our physical and mental health. It validates our journey but more importantly gives us the impetus to realize our human potential despite our given genetic code.
There will be an in-depth future blog post on meditation, but did you know the amazing benefits of this ancient practice? Meditation itself can actually GROW your brain and increase blood flow to it. This rhythmic breathing has even been shown to slow the aging process and reverse dementia after only 8 weeks of practice, even if you find yourself easily distracted (that is normal and not a reason to give up on it).
The 4-7-8 Breath
I’ll leave you here today with a practical meditation tip developed from Andrew Weil that you can institute today to start your path toward epigenetic change. Try it everyday for a month and make note of how you feel in a daily journal or calendar.
The days are gone when you could chalk up your ails to those of your parents. Genetics does play a role, but a very small one and much less than had been thought. Gene expression is influenced by the choices you make and even positive and negative thought patterns. YOU are in control of your own destiny, and your body has amazing capacity to heal. Nurture it from the inside and out, and you will be living your best life!
Veena Somani is an Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine physician coach based in Asheville, NC, who helps working moms nourish themselves on and off their plate through behavioral change and transformation.
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