By: Dr. Gretchen Diem, Healthy Psychology
Did you know that your genes may not fully determine your health destiny? A new concept in the medical community known as “epigenetics” suggests that you may have more control over your genetic legacy than you think. Until recently it was believed you were stuck with the genes you were born with and that much of what went on in terms of health, susceptibility to diseases, and longevity were hard-wired into your genetic code.
It’s now known, however, that your genes can get turned on and off, and that they can be expressed to greater or lesser degrees, as a result of your lifestyle habits. In other words, what you put on your plate, how much you move your body, whether you smoke, what and how much you drink, the degree of stress in your life and your attitude can actually change the instructions held in your DNA. So, even if your genes indicate a history of family illness (i.e., heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, etc.) you can make lifestyle choices and health-related behavior changes that can keep a gene from being turned on and expressed as a disease.
Take cancer as an example, healthy lifestyle habits positively affect genes that help fight cancer, while others help turn off genes that promote cancer development, according to a study, which is in the June 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another study conducted here at the University of Wisconsin, published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the human genome as well. “Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” said Dr. Richard Davidson one of the lead researchers. These findings are very encouraging. They counter the doomsday thinking we so often hear people saying; “It’s all in my genes, there’s nothing I can do.”
The advice to quit smoking, eat more fruits and vegetables, move your body more, get restorative sleep, and cultivate a more positive outlook is not new or novel. We have known for a long time that it can reduce the chance of declining health. It’s just that now the concept of epigenetics tells us that your lifestyle changes can change the expression of hundreds of your genes, and not just your genes but also the genes of several future generations.
So what will you do to minimize your risk of cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or other illnesses that may be part of your family history and genetic predisposition? Pause for a moment to think about what you want for your body and your mind. Each and every day, you make hundreds of decisions and choices that can determine your health in the months and years ahead. The potential health benefits are endless.
We at Meriter understand that changing health habits is not always easy. If you would like to help with learning new tools for making sustainable behavior changes, consider joining one of our lifestyle intervention programs so that you can lead a long and healthy life.