Have you ever wondered why some of your family members develop chronic diseases or cancers while others do not? Or why identical twins are not exactly identical? The answers to these questions are not completely answered by modern medicine. New research is showing that expression of our genes comes down to the food we eat, the thoughts we think, and the environment we live in. This is a form of biology known as epigenetics.
Epigenetics was first published by Dr. Bruce Lipton, a research scientist and former professor at the University of Wisconsin. He shares his revolutionary findings in a growing field of epigenetics in his book, “The Biology of Belief.” Using a simple petri dish filled with stem cells, Dr. Lipton showed that the health of these cells were influenced by the medium (a.k.a. environment) they were exposed to.
Epigenetics means “above” or “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes. Every living organism on earth has it’s own specific genome. This is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including genes, found in every single cell of that organism. Each individual DNA sequence is a conglomeration of their parents, yet unique to that individual. According to Dr. Lipton’s research we may not have control of our genetics, but we can control how they’re expressed.
So what are these environmental factors that can affect the expression of our genes? Simply put, they are the “choices” we make in life. What we think, how we feel, foods we eat, relationships we make, how stressed we are, etc… All of these things influence our perceptions of the world and thus how we express our genes.
What’s more, your genes aren’t just expressed through what you eat, what you drink, or how much you exercise. According to epigenetic principles, your genetic expression might also be associated with your parents’ behavior. What your mother ate, how much your father drank, and even what your grandmother smoked may affect your genetic expression. Thus, the expression of your kids’ own genes may be shaped by the choices you make and environment you live in.
An example of this was an observed in the Netherlands.
Towards the end of the Second World War, something unprecedented happened in modern Europe: a famine. The Allies’ attempt to push across the Rhine in September 1944, had failed. The Nazis had blocked towns across the western Netherlands for over six months, leading to food shortages. This became known as the Dutch Hongerwinter. Each person only had 580 calories of food per day. Over 22,000 people died from malnutrition, and thousands of babies were born underweight. (paraphrasing Chris Bell’s Telegraph article)
When researchers analyzed the Dutch medical records decades later, they noticed that the infants who survived were more prone to health problems. But they also found a curious anomaly. These children’s own children – born years later, and well fed – were also underweight. The famine had, it seemed, “scarred” the victims’ DNA. (paraphrasing Chris Bell’s Telegraph article)
This emerging research on epigenetics highlights why it is so important to make choices with wellness in mind. Life is not completely predetermined by our genes. Genes are no longer a crutch or an excuse. Just because your father had heart disease or your mother had diabetes, doesn’t mean that you have to. The environment you place yourself in and the corresponding affect on your genes is what determines our life outcomes. And not just our life outcomes, but the life outcomes of your children and grandchildren.
In the following weeks, we will discuss how to change our environment for better outcomes based on actual human genetic needs.