This post will explain gene expression and whether or not we are destined to experience the same bad health outcomes of our relatives. Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised!
How often have you responded, when someone complimented you on your svelte body, your healthy complexion, your optimistic attitude, your athletic ability, your excellent work ethic, your organized home/office, your good overall health, etc. etc.:
“Good genes! I am lucky. Just like my _____(insert family relation here)!”? If it weren’t for this gift of great genes, we would never have had such good traits. Or so we think…
How often have you lamented, when thinking about or discussing your own unfavorable tendencies, like high blood pressure, heart disease, pre-diabetes, diabetes, excess weight (especially around the waist), painful joints, short temper, disorganized office/home, feel free to add your own here:
“I’m just unlucky. My parents/my mother’s side of the family/etc. all had the same problem! Oh well. It doesn’t really matter what I do, I’m doomed to have this condition.” If it weren’t for this legacy of bad genes, we would never have had such terrible traits. Or so we think…
We have been led to believe that our genetic makeup is responsible for how we turn out, for the good or bad. To be fair, that’s what the science seemed to suggest for most of our lifetimes. Here comes the good news: there’s a new field called epigenetics1Epigeneticsand its findings can be summed up in the following quotation, origin unclear:
Your genes load the gun. Your lifestyle pulls the trigger.
So the control is in our own decisions, after all. What did you think when you read that? Did it turn upside-down your pessimism about your being able to live well as you get older? What does hearing that we can be very much in control of our future do to your own expectations and frame of mind?
What do these recent findings mean for us, as we tread warily towards retirement age? So many people we’ve known or loved began to deteriorate and gradually acquire conditions or diseases that required medications with undesirable side effects! We used to think that the expression of our “dirty genes”2Dirty Genes by Dr. Ben Lynch, a term coined by the gifted Dr.Ben Lynch, is inevitable. Now we know that it is not.
To be 100% clear and accurate, there are some genes that we are born with, like the ones that determine our eye color. Those won’t change over our lifetime. But the rest? They are in our control. There are actions that we can take or avoid that will determine whether a bad gene will be expressed or suppressed. Same for the good genes, actually.
How can this good news have any bearing on how we age?
Here’s a short recap of how much control we can have in attending to the pillars of balanced health.3The pillars of balanced health
We’ve already begun to learn many ways to ensure that we’re getting the restorative sleep that we need, to improve or maintain our health outcomes. These actions work to express the genes that help us fall asleep and those that help us stay asleep. When we don’t carry out those actions, well, bad things can happen.4The importance of sleep
We still have a lot to learn about finding the right amount of exercise for ourselves. Spoiler alert: too much exercise is a problem, as much as too little exercise is. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that “the more we do, the better”, and we’ve been encouraged to admire those who spend hours a week working out. Stay tuned for the truth. What we choose to do will end up having either a good or bad effect on our health outcomes.
Farewell to stress:
In a previous blog post5Is it Possible to get Rid of Our Stress?, I alluded to the fact that the stress in our lives isn’t simply something that we have to get used to.
In fact, not being able to manage our stress will contribute to a cascade of poor health effects, raising our risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, headaches, and obesity.6Health effects of poor stress management
In addition, there will be even more undesirable side effects from the poor habits we acquire when we find ourselves overwhelmed by stressful situations and people. We all know people who turn to consuming excessive alcohol, overeating, smoking, self-medicating with anti-anxiety meds, watching hours of TV, sleeping too much, losing their tempers easily, avoiding interaction with others, or taking illegal or unsafe drugs —when what they really need is an effective stress management tool.
Learning how to manage our stress effectively is one of the most powerful formulas for determining good health outcomes.7Because no matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity. Conversely, not learning this skill can have detrimental consequences. Once again, we can see that the outcomes we want are in our own control and not in our genes’ control!
We can learn to remove the foods that disrupt the optimal function of our genes. And we can learn to add in those nutrient-dense foods that will optimize our health outcomes. Spoiler alert: this list will not be the same for everyone! Each of us can learn how to improve our outcomes, and what we put in our mouths has a huge effect on the quality of those outcomes, regardless of our current state of health. We are still in control!
Because we live in the 21st century, we need to become aware of just how much toxic exposure we experience daily. Heavy metals, chlorine, pesticides, to name just a few — all of these can affect our gene expression and our health outcomes. Some of these toxins are unavoidable, but we can still learn to become educated consumers and avoid those toxins that we choose to. Once again, we, and not our genes, are in control!
No matter our age, we are always capable of learning something new, changing our behavior and thereby promoting the health and resilience of our brains, strengthening them against the horrors of dementia and Alzheimer’s. By attending to the neuroplasticity8Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life of our brains, we will be strengthening our good genes and preventing the bad genes from getting expressed. More control for us!!
By addressing each of these pillars, we will be well on our way to aging well with confidence. Doing so will stack the odds in our favor for increasing the number of healthy years we have ahead of us, as opposed to simply increasing our lifespan. And now we know, from science, that our health and wellness outcomes will greatly depend on our own decisions and actions.
What will you decide to do in order to change your own destiny for the better this week?