Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Epigenetics and you- control over your heredity

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I often get asked how much control one has over one’s genetic endowment. This is an excellent question, and has been studied in depth recently.  Epigenetics, which means “control above genetics” is the study of how environmental signals influence gene expression. For example, you may have a genetic predisposition towards type II diabetes, but if you keep close to your ideal weight by eating healthy food in the right amounts, exercise frequently, and keep blood pressure under control, you may never actually get the disease.

Many of today’s genetic breakthroughs started with the Human Genome Project of the late 1980s, which set out to identify and map every human gene. Instead of the expected discovery of about 100,000 genes, under 25,000 were identified, which is about the same number as the above critter! After mapping the human genome, scientists were able to observe genetic-based differences and correlate them specific characteristics.  Thus began the realization that gene mutations are not the only cause of pathological states.

Our thoughts, emotions, nutrition, exercise, and management of stress all send signals that determine whether genes become active or lie dormant. In short, our daily choices in nutrition and lifestyle put us in the driver’s seat- we can age gracefully or struggle with chronic disease- we have more control than previously thought. Even identical twins were found to die an average of 10 years apart, despite sharing much of the same gene pool.

There are 3 main aspects to examine when considering how you can positively influence your health, regardless of your parents’ genetic gifts to you.

  1. Lifestyle habits – adequate sleep , stress management, quality of relationships, and attitude in general all affect whether certain genes are turned on or off.
  2. Exercise – incorporating exercise affects DNA methylation , which typically acts to repress gene transcription. So, even if one of your parents had heart disease, exercise will likely have the effect of keeping those genes that may express this illness dormant.
  3. Nutrition – phytonutrients, those plant-based, health -promoting compounds affect the transcription of our genes. Pigments in plants have copious protective and healing properties.

This week, let’s look at how lifestyle choices can affect gene expression.  Proper lifestyle choices can stave off chronic illness, and enhance your sense of everyday wellbeing.

  • Sleep – minimum of 7-8 hours a night. Even if you “catch up” on the weekends, this does not make up for inadequate sleep during the week. This is the time that cells heal themselves, and hormones, such as leptin, ghrelin (appetite hormones) cortisol (stress hormone) and insulin (blood sugar hormone) regulate themselves.
  • Stress management- keeping annoyances and upsetting situations in perspective by taking down time when needed, having rewarding hobbies or leisure activities, decompressing through meditation or taking time in nature, getting advice or talking to someone to manage difficult emotions
  • Quality of relationships- studies that looked at longevity consistently pointed out the importance of meaningful relationships in keeping people feeling happy and healthy. Family ties, and close relationships with friends and colleagues accounted for increased levels of happiness. The effect of social isolation on hypertension exceeded that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age. Social isolation also increases levels of inflammation, which can lead to host of other physical maladies. See http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/02/1511085112.abstract   for more details.

As Dan Hurley, when writing about epigenetics said, “The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch: Shake it hard enough, and you can wipe clean the family curse.” What are you doing to maximize your chances at overcoming the less than ideal family tendencies, and perpetuate the desired ones? Stay tuned for next week’s blog which will look at the effects of exercise on your epigenome.

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