In 2008, the National Institutes of Health announced that $190 million had been earmarked for epigenetics research over the following five years. In announcing the funding, government officials noted that epigenetics has the potential to explain mechanisms of aging, human development, the origins of cancer, heart disease, and mental illness, as well as several other conditions.
Even when you’ve inherited genes from your biological parents, they might or might not be active in your own makeup. When a gene activates, that’s called “genetic expression.” It turns out that genetic expression can be affected by your experiences and even by your thoughts and feelings.
At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of these changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations to DNA.
Genes can be thought of as the blueprints that provide the design for the human body and for how it develops. The word genome — a combination of the words gene and chromosome — refers to the genetic information of any organism. The human genome is often called the “map” of our DNA.
However, genes don’t make decisions about what they do or whether they’re turned on or off. An article in Discover magazine put it this way: “A human liver cell contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver.” 
More recent discoveries show that the epigenome can and does change during your entire lifetime. Alterations are made in response to your environment, which includes your surroundings, life experiences, diet, personal behavior, and even beliefs and perceptions (the placebo effect).
In other words, your epigenetic markers can be rewritten, which means that you can modify the instructions your genes receive. Proteins in the epigenome act as the building contractor that does the work of building the organism. You can change those proteins with epigenetic signals, including beliefs and perceptions. That’s because your perception of any given thing, at any given moment, can influence your brain chemistry. That influences the chemistry of your blood, which in turn influences your cells and controls the expression of your genes. In other words, your thoughts and perceptions have a direct and significant effect on the genes and their proteins in your cells.
Epigenetics encourages the belief that problems caused by our behavioral genes can be fixed by our mind. The NIH division of Health and Human Services includes a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The NCCAM division reports on a wide variety of health products and practices. About 40 percent of our disposable income goes to those alternative and complementary therapies. They include acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, Tai chi, qi gong, and so on. These mind-body therapies are not accepted as mainstream Western medical remedies since scientific evidence of their effectiveness is lacking. Any positive results from these therapies are generally thought to be due to the placebo effect.
When a fake treatment — a sugar pill or a saline solution — improves a patient’s condition just because the patient expects it to work, we call that the “placebo effect.” It demonstrates the power of the mind. These studies clearly illustrate that our thoughts and feelings are much more powerful than we often realize. In order for cells to respond positively, however, they must be given the right mental intervention and perceptual thought signals. The NCCAM lists mindfulness and hypnosis among alternative therapies, and there is a growing awareness and evidence of their effectiveness.
Watters, E. DNA Is Not Destiny: The New Science of Epigenetics. Discover, 22 November 2006. http://discovermagazine.com/2006/nov/cover
DNA strand image available from Shutterstock