Last year, I sent a tube of my saliva off to learn more about my risk for diseases (and potentially connect with Irish relatives) through one of the genetic testing sites. I learned I have a variant in one gene giving me a “slightly elevated risk” for late-onset Alzheimers.
“What?!!” I thought. No one in my family had Alzheimers.
For months after receiving the results, I felt convinced my memory was failing me. If I misplaced my keys, it was a sign my mind was slipping. Forget a name — memory loss had already started.
My mother and all my living aunts and uncles are mentally sharp in their eighties. When I fret about my genetic fate, I consider my chances are probably slim for getting this at least until I’m much, much older.
Knowing you have a genetic predisposition for something doesn’t mean it has to become your reality. Though there are single-gene diseases with specific variants, others like heart disease, obesity and diabetes involve several gene changes, making the development of such conditions more complicated.
Fortunately, this complexity means you can influence your risk levels of developing certain conditions through lifestyle modifications and epigenetics.
Even if you know you carry a specific single gene mutation, research shows there are varying degrees of severity in many diseases and altering your internal and external environment may be key to managing disease, or better yet, preventing it.
Genetics vs Epigenetics
Your DNA is like a cookbook of recipes your cells read to function properly. Each recipe comprises sections, or genes, which provide the cell with information it needs to do its job – from how organs develop in utero to what proteins your body produces. Epigenetics adds an extra layer of complexity by changing the way those recipes get used from generation-to-generation and year to year.
In other words, Genes are inherited, but not all genes are expressed. Epigenetics is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work” Centers for Disease Control.
Your parents pass on something called “epigenetic tags”. This means that personality quirks, disease risks, or other traits can find their way into your genome.
Scientifically, these “tags” are chemicals or enzymes in your body sitting on your genes that regulate gene expression. So my elevated risk for late onset Alzheimer’s disease might be a latent risk that never gets expressed because my body-mind remains in a state that doesn’t flip that genetic switch.
Epigenetics helps you adapt to your environment, develop resilience and survive changes to your internal and external environment. Your body can change for better or worse. This is good news because you can choose to change your lifestyle and environment to support good health and reduce your chances of disease – despite your genetic inheritance..
Following are reminders of what you can do to optimize your chances of sustained health and wellbeing into old age.
- Eat more vegetables. For optimal cellular metabolism and health, it’s important to nourish your body with organic, whole foods. Whole food nutrition (and limiting processed food) is key to giving your cells the nutrients they need.
- Make sleep a priority. Sleep is necessary for your body to recover and heal. If you don’t get 7–8 hours a night, you’re hijacking cells of their opportunity to work optimally. If you’re tired, they’re tired and won’t function well.
- Exercise regularly. Move to maintain good health. Choose what activity motivates you, but shoot for a minimum of 150 min a week.
- Nurture relationships. Science supports the importance of feeling a sense of connection, safety, and love for developing (and maintaining) a healthy nervous system. Building healthy relationships and supportive social networks may take some effort, but the payoff is a feeling of belonging and purpose. Letting go of toxic relationships is also an important step for creating a happy life.
- Take care of your mental health. Mindfulness and meditation are great tools to alter gene expression and rewire your brain to become more resilient. A regular practice of yoga, meditation, or any mindfulness activity will help you navigate life’s stressors more gracefully.
- Get outdoors for sun and fresh air. Because. Air pollution, noise pollution, and unsafe environments are toxic to your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
These things may sound familiar from past blogs I’ve written. The key principles of a healthy lifestyle haven’t changed much. But in light of what you know about epigenetics, it should be clear how due diligence today may pay off later.
Reach out if you have any opinion on this topic. I love to chat about science.
I may even remember our conversation!
- Neuropsychopharmacology | Epigenetic Inheritance of Disease and Disease Risk by Johannes Bohacek and Isabelle M Mansuy
- Trends in Genetics | A Twin Approach to Unraveling Epigenetics by Jordana T. Bell and Tim D. Spector
- Epigenomics | Epigenetics and Lifestyle by Jorge Alejandro Alegría-Torres, Andrea Baccarelli, and Valentina Bollati
- Frontiers in Psychology | Molecules of Silence: Effects of Meditation on Gene Expression and Epigenetics by Sabrina Venditti, Loredana Verdone, and Michele Zampieri
- Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience | Social Environment and Epigenetics by Sarah M. Merrill, Nicole Gladish, and Michael S. Kobort
- Nature | Epigenetics: Reversible Tags by Jessica Wright
*Photo credit: Vadim Bocharov on Pexels