What is ‘Epigenetics’ and how does it pertain to everyday life?

DNA Strand

We all know about genetics, at least on the surface. It’s basically the science that tells us “no matter how hard you try to change your physical fate, your inherited genes will always dictate your health.” That idea has been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds. We constantly say or hear people say things like:

  • “Nothing I can do about it. It’s in my genes” OR
  • “Bad cholesterol runs in my family, so I have to take this statin (i.e. Lipitor)” OR
  • “Cancer runs in my family. I’m bound to get it too so I might as well have fun while I’m healthy” OR
  • “Obesity runs in my family, so that’s why I am overweight” OR…

Well, you get the picture. Do you notice a trend here? Any observations? The first observation I make when I hear these statements is that most people truly still believe in this line of thinking, The second observation is that usually these statements are a mechanism that the person saying it uses to rationalize their situation by blaming it on something outside of their control. This is totally understandable. It feels much better to think that your body is failing you because of your genetic makeup and that there is nothing that you can do about it. In fact, that is exactly what the pharmaceutical industry would have you believe if they could. The message from them is ” Just take these pills for the rest of your life. It’s the only way for you to treat your condition.”

But is it true? Does our genetic makeup really predetermine whether or not we will get cancer, or have cardiovascular disease? Autoimmune conditions? Obesity? Diabetes? Is it really out of our control? Perhaps in certain cases this could be true. But before 20 years ago, just about every scientist on earth believed this to be 100% true. That was, until the discovery and application of a new science called “epigenetics” came along.

Epigenetics is “The study of changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence – hence the name epi, (Greek: over or above) -genetics.” Here is what that mumbo jumbo means in plain english:

Epigenetics is the study of how things OTHER than your DNA and genetics (such as where you live geographically, pollution, stress, diet, sleep patterns, your career, toxins you ingest, the amount and quality of exercise you perform throughout your life, etc.) can actually alter how your genes express themselves.

This is not to say that we are not genetically predisposed to certain conditions and diseases, because we all are. What this is saying is that even though we might be genetically predisposed towards (insert type of cancer) cancer, in order for us to actually get cancer, something other than our genetic code actually works to instruct our genes to “flip the switch” and begin mutating cells. And that ‘something’ is in many cases the lifestyle that we lead.

So for instance, let’s say that you have a genetic predisposition (gd forbid) for lung cancer. The first question to ask yourself is “if that is my genetic predisposition, then why don’t I currently have lung cancer?”. The answer is that the genes in your body have not yet been triggered to create cancerous mutations in your cells. An environmental trigger could be what flips that switch. Smoking is one. Living near or working in a coal mine (or near some other drastically polluted air) could be another. Or, it could be all of the sugar that you eat that triggers it by promoting widespread inflammation in your tissues. I can go on and on. Mercury toxicity from dental fillings you received 30 years ago. Toxins and pesticides from the foods you eat. GMOs. Toxins from our deodorants, soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, makeup and sunscreens we use on a daily basis. Severe lack of sleep or exercise. Leading a chronically stressful lifestyle. All of these things can be the environmental triggers that flip that proverbial lung cancer switch to the “on” position. By the same token, the reverse (leading a healthy lifestyle) can be linked to keeping that switch turned off even with a genetic predisposition.

In terms of our health, I really can’t think of a more profound concept than this. What this means is that the choices that we make every single day pertaining to how we lead our lives is the ultimate determinant of whether or not we die early from a horrible disease or if we are destined to live vibrantly until the ripe age of 100 years old.

Are you reading this? Take a moment to let this concept soak in. This burgeoning field of science called Epigenetics is telling us that we have the power to make ourselves healthy and happy, regardless of our genetic predispositions.

What’s scary is that now scientists are learning that our epigenetic traits, altered by the lifestyles that we lead, are passed down from generation to generation. So the lifestyle choices that you make today are altering your epigenetic markers in a way that can profoundly impact your grandchildren. No pressure though…

As such, it would follow that in order for us to be healthy and to keep the disease switches “flipped off”, we MUST address and optimize each one of these areas of our lives:

1) Diet –

  • Ideally, take steps to determine your metabolic type, and the diet best suited for it (this is something that I do for clients so feel free to inquire with me about this).
  • Use lab work to determine if you have any food sensitivities, allergies, or intolerances that might be causing hidden stress in your body (read: inflammation).
  • Do your best to eliminate or severely cut down your intake of sugar, processed foods, refined carbohydrates and starches, and vegetable oils.
  • Eat REAL FOOD. Read labels. If you can’t pronounce or recognize an ingredient, don’t eat it.

2) Rest –

  • Get at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep every night.
  • Keep your bedroom cool (ideally less than 70 degrees fahrenheit will promote sound sleep).
  • Stop using your computer, phone, ipad, or TV at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Try to keep the same bedtime every night.
  • Keep your room as dark as possible. Cover up any LED lights from fans, alarm clocks, cable boxes, etc.

3) Exercise –

  • Try to move periodically every day. If your work is generally sedentary, try getting up to stretch or do light exercises every 15 minutes.
  • HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, is a great way to get a fantastic full body workout in a short period of time. I also really like crossfit and martial arts (muay thai, jiu jitsu). Here is an intense Tabata workout variation as an example.
  • Yoga is a terrific choice for exercise and it gives you a lot of physical and mental bang for your buck. You can tone, strengthen, and limber up your body while learning the powerful art of meditation and stillness which can work wonders for your stress levels. I personally love practicing hot yoga. I can’t say enough good things about it. I feel incredible after every class.
  • Exercise, but don’t over-exercise. There is evidence that over exercising is actually detrimental to your health.
  • Get outside and connect with nature. Take long hikes and walks. Play outdoor sports. Make exercise fun.

4) Stress Reduction –

  • Eustress is the good kind of stress, like when we ride a roller coaster. Chronic stress, external or internal is what we need to watch out for. There is evidence that chronic stress is highly correlated with a multitude of serious diseases like cancer and heart disease.
  • External stressors (your job, marriage, relationship, financial situation, children, friends, family, geographic location) must be dealt with. To do this, you need to become a master of your own mind through meditation, deep breathing, and gratitude training. You also might want to consider the “toxic” people that you have in your life and creating distance between you and them.
  • Aside from chronic emotional stress that stems from circumstances outside of your body, we all have chronic hidden internal stressors that wreak havoc on every system of our bodies. Internal stressors can come in the form of food sensitivities, heavy metal toxicity, gut dysfunction, bugs, parasites, hormonal imbalances, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and the list goes on. In order to uncover any hidden internal stressors that might be wreaking silent havoc in your body you need to do functional lab work (As a Functional Diagnostic Wellness Practitioner, this is another thing I can help you with. Just inquire with me if interested).

5) Supplementation –

  • Supplementation is vitally important to our health. The state of our food system today is disastrous. Widespread chemical and pesticide usage has hurt the soil that we use to grow our food, rendering it far less nutritious. If the soil has less nutrients than it used to, the foods we eat will have less nutrition as well. Between the degradation of nutrients in our food, the processed junk foods, the toxic loads that we assault our bodies with each day (pesticides, chemical exposure, etc) and the chronic stress that we all have come to live with and call “normal”, just about every person on earth should be supplementing. But I am constantly approached with these questions regarding supplements:
  • What supplements should we take?
  • In what dosage?
  • Which brands are best?
  • How do I really know what supplements I need for my body?
  • These are all great questions, and again, as a Functional Diagnostic Wellness Practitioner, this is something that I help people with. The only way to know what your body needs in the way of supplementation is to do functional lab work that identifies dysfunction and healing opportunities in your body. Only then will we know what supplements you should truly be taking. Any other form of supplementation is essentially guesswork and, apart from being a potential colossal waste of money, could actually be harmful to you. For instance, did you know that calcium, magnesium, vitamin d3, vitamin k2, and vitamin a all work together synergistically in your body? If you are supplementing with one you need to consider supplementing with several of them or you could potentially do more harm than good. I am actually going to blog soon about smart supplementation so stay tuned for that.

If you are interested in learning more about the science of Epigenetics click here or here. They are both excellent videos that will give you a solid basic understanding of the science.

As always, thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments below. Just keep it classy!


Rick Gold, FDWP.

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