Good news. You are not your genes. You are not destined to succumb to the same ailments that have plagued your family tree. And even if you’ve already been diagnosed with a condition that has roots in personal genetic mutations (hiccups in your DNA), you have the incredible ability to work to regulate those genes, to express or silence them.
The scientific term for this is epigenetics, but you can just think of yourself as your own “gene-whisperer”.
Your body (down to the cellular level) responds to your diet, your environment, different therapies, your thoughts, your emotions; an endless list of epigenetic determinants that play crucial roles in your genetic landscape. While you have no control over who your parents are (the genes you’ve inherited), and no control over your history, you can start now to dramatically shift your terrain.
So, I’d like to use this article to point you in the direction of some exciting studies, some ground-breaking research, insights from leaders in the field of epigenetics, and how to take this knowledge and apply it to your story.
Why Should You Consider Testing?
You may be asking the question: I feel healthy, do I need to know this information? Do my children? Or, in the spirit of “ignorance is bliss” you may have concerns that too much knowledge could lead to fearful, unnecessary action. Both thought processes are valid; and again, I want to emphasize that you can still make lifestyle and wellness choices that optimise your genetic landscape without knowing the specifics: sunlight, clean water, clean eating, clean environments and cultivating healthy thought patterns are a strong foundation.
But, today’s testing tools, combined with the emerging scientific field of epigenetics, now gives you the ability to fine tune and bio-individualise your personal wellness strategies, which most describe as an empowering, hope-giving experience. You can choose what information you want to know, and tailor your lifestyle accordingly.
For example, knowing whether you have a SNP (which stands for single nucleotide polymorphism, but simply means “mutation”) in the COMT gene will allow you to pick the best form of Vitamin B12 to support your personal biology and emphasizes how crucial hormone-balancing and stress-reduction tactics are in your lifestyle. Or, knowing that you have a SNP in the VDR gene will highlight the importance of Vitamin D supplementation and regular, unobstructed sun exposure (this gives you an excuse to hit the beach, as having a healthy level of Vitamin D is important in the prevention and reversal of a long list of disease processes, including cancer).
Hong Kong Hint: Given the sun-avoiding and office-dominant lifestyles here, it is very likely you are deficient in Vitamin D, so this is worth your attention.
Knowing your MTHFR gene status is especially helpful for expecting mothers who are often encouraged to supplement with folic acid prior to and during pregnancy; folate (as methyl-folate or folinic acid), instead of the common and synthetic folic acid, is the preferred choice for all, but especially those with mutations in this gene.
If you’re wondering how common the above SNPs are, it might help you to know that I have mutations in all three of them and I’ve been able to fine tune my supplement protocol and lifestyle to optimize the activity of these slightly deficient genes.
Knowledge is Power (Mostly)
Where in the past knowing your genetic status required consultations with Medical Geneticists and expensive (often prohibitively-so) testing, within the past 10 years, testing kits like 23andMe (my recommendation) and online results analysis tools like Promethease, Genetic Genie and Livewello have made getting a comprehensive genetic profile inexpensive and accessible. The upside to these consumer-focused tools is that knowing your genetic status has become easy. The downside is potentially not knowing what to do with this knowledge, or worse, allowing your genetic picture to be a source of fear rather than a jumping off point for wellness.
So, before you dive headfirst into your own DNA, I would recommend a basic primer on epigenetics like The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey, PhD, Feel Good Nutrigenomics by Dr. Amy Yasko, or exploring resources from Dr. Ben Lynch who has made understanding epigenetics accessible for everyone.
Private Consultations: Of course, receiving personal epigenetic guidance from a trained professional can take the pressure off of you to be your own detective, especially if facing more serious issues such as a family history of cancer, or a present diagnosis. Optimal Terrain Consulting, based in the US, coaches international clients via Skype, but many hospitals and clinics offer similar options locally.
Genetics to Epigenetics
It’s important to make the distinction between genetics and epigenetics. Think of the former like a noun (un-actionable), and the latter like a verb (actionable).
The study of genetics (the noun) came first. A long and valuable history of research that led to game-changing discoveries like the sequencing of DNA. But if you just stop with genetics, then there’s a risk you’ll fall into the dangerous belief system (often perpetuated by old science, and poorly informed doctors, especially oncologists) that you are powerless to your genetic mutations. By the way, we all have genetic mutations of some kind (chalk that up to thousands of years of humanity cross-referenced with an increasingly polluted environment and food supply); by working to keep those mutations in check, then it’s possible you can ride into the sunset of old age without the diseases that your mutations predispose you to ever manifesting.
Enter epigenetics. The verb. Deserving of a standing ovation.
“Epi” in Greek means “above” or “over”. Epigenetics then, beautifully, means “above or over genetics”. It’s the field of science that basically says with sincerity “thank you” to the founding fathers of genetics, but takes it a step further and suggests that our genes aren’t solely responsible for dictating our health and that our genetic expression can change (sometimes instantly).
As mentioned above, the list of epigenetic determinants (those “things” that you can utilize to favorably influence your genes) is long. But there are four larger categories of determinants that take center stage and have cascading impacts on your health: beliefs, diet, environment and tailored therapies.
#1 Your Thoughts Matter
Cellular biologist Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief, begins to unravel the idea that we are subject to our genes by offering insights into the inner- and outer-workings of a cell. An individual cell is like a human body (almost holographic). It is capable of the same functions that our bodies as a whole are capable of: respiration, digestion, reproduction and more.
It was previously thought that the nucleus of the cell (which contains our genes) was the driving force behind the cell, the control center. However, when the nucleus is removed from a cell, it still continues to function well. This discovery suggests that a cell’s nucleus (the dwelling-place of our DNA) is not in control. Turns out, our thoughts do play a role in the health of a cell.
A brief synopsis of these findings are here, but the majority of Dr. Lipton’s work point to the power that our thoughts have over genetic expression, and that our perceptions have the ability to nudge our genes:
Beliefs act as a filter between the real environment and your biology. Thus, people have the power to change their biology. It is important to keep a clear perception because otherwise you won’t develop the right things biologically for the real environment around you.
Though his work is not specific to the role thoughts play on actual genetic shifts, Dr. Joe Dispenza shows us just how dramatically thoughts can impact physiology in his book You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter using scientific research, state-of-the-art testing technologies and case studies.
When it comes to our beliefs, it’s also natural to draw a connection to faith and spirituality. Fortunately, the more I research, the more I see the beautiful synergy between science and faith, between our physiology and our spirituality. Verses from the Bible’s New Testament encourage us to consider and take control of our thoughts: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8, NIV)
Now science has caught up to this ancient wisdom, showing us that by cultivating an intentional, positive thought life, even our genes are capable of favorable shifts.
#2 Your Diet Matters
Food, besides being a source of joy, can be wildly therapeutic and healing. Alternatively, the wrong types of food can wreak havoc on your body down to the cellular level. Diving into the nuances of nutrition merits its own series of articles, but you’ll learn quickly that I strongly disagree with the oft-quoted dietary advice that “moderation is key”. There is no room for moderate nutrition when deep wellness is the goal, because you stand to gain too much by tipping the scales towards viewing food medicinally. The research is stacked and the list could be long, but here three hints on how your diet could favorably influence your genes:
*Fasting (restricting calorie intake, through intermittent fasting or extended, more restrictive fasts) favorably influences your genetic landscape.
*Approaching wellness from a metabolic standpoint through therapies like the ketogenic diet can favorably influence your genetic landscape.
*Dark leafy green vegetables, flaxseed oils, fish oils, seafood (should be wild caught, low in heavy metals), beef (grass-fed), naturally raised lamb, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli alone, and in synergy, can influence your genetic landscape, impacting physiological processes as complex as apoptosis (cell death) in cancer.
You skin, your body’s largest organ, is also a consumer of the personal care products you use. Think of your lotions, creams, deodorants and perfumes, your toothpaste and more, as food for your skin. And run these purchases through the Skin Deep website to ensure the safety of their ingredients.
#3 Your Environment Matters
Being in a city you love, in a home you’ve made your own, building in time for holidays to dream destinations, and working to strengthen relationships and community ties all work together to synergistically improve your health. But, it’s also important to do an inventory of your home and workplace to ensure that where you spend your time is free of toxins and health-promoting.
Air pollution, for example, is known to cause mutagenic effects on genes; this is especially important to consider in Asian cities like Hong Kong, making high quality air purifiers essential. This also highlights the value of getting out in nature for cleaner air quality and all other benefits forest bathing offers.
#4 Tailored Natural Therapies Are Powerful
Working with an integrative, functional or naturopathic doctor to optimize your health is a worthwhile investment, especially when these evaluations include a review of your genetic landscape. High quality supplements that are chosen for you based on your bio-individual needs can powerfully enhance your health, prevent disease and even work synergistically with other therapies to get your health back on track even if a disease process is present.
The list is endless and continues to grow, but two popular examples are the nutraceuticals curcumin and EGCG. Curcumin, a constituent of the common Indian spice turmeric, as well as EGCG (found in green tea), are both wellness rock stars with long lists of scientific studies supporting their inclusion in many wellness protocols.
Because no two people have the same biology, it’s important to ensure that your approach to health is bio-individualised as well, unique to you and your needs; good physicians will take the time to thoroughly evaluate your health history, your biochemistry (lab work), your genes, your symptoms and stressors before a plan is devised. Great physicians take it a step further and treat you as a partner in the process, valuing your instincts and insights into your own health as much as they do their schooling.
Fortunately, there seems to be a shift away from one-size-fits-all therapies and emerging science proves that we have control over our health, starting with our genes.