We have all been dealt a set of genetic cards. Some may determine our height, athletic prowess, proclivity for creative writing, or the ability to rapidly add successive numbers. But how we play those cards — through the stimuli we expose ourselves to, how we interact with the world around us, and even the thoughts we endorse — ultimately determines the trajectory of our lives.
No longer does our genetic hand determine our destiny. We now know that we have the ability to program our genes, by turning them on and off, through the actions we take.
“The successful mapping of the human genome was only a first big step, it turns out, one that would become the foundation for yet another quantum leap in biology. More advanced research, especially in the last decade, points to the advent of a new field called epigenetics, which studies the human epigenome,” writes Kenneth R. Pelletier.
In his new book, Change Your Genes, Change Your Life: Creating Optimal Health With the New Science of Epigenetics, Pelletier integrates a lifetime of research and experiences to distill the new science of how our genes respond to everything we do, and importantly, just how we can now use this science to achieve optimal health.
While the assumption had long been that genes are deterministic in their expression, we now know that our genes respond to how we interact with the world. What we eat, who we surround ourselves with, what we see and breathe, and even the pharmaceuticals we take all influence how our epigenome functions.
Pelletier writes, “Today we know that surrounding every gene is a complex set of switches that determine what property of the gene will or will not be expressed.”
Genes don’t work alone, and most common disorders arise due to a complex set of interactions between many genes and the environment. However, this is also reason to hope.
Pelletier writes, “Hundreds of studies show that our genes are responsive to the biochemical and energetic environment we create in and around our cells through our daily choices. As a result, a thrilling new picture is emerging: the discovery that our biology is modifiable.”
Epigenomics refers to the study of the chemical markers that appear above — signified by the Greek prefix epi, which means “above” — the genes and influence how the genes function.
Pelletier writes, “It is almost as if there are two languages being ‘spoken’ by our DNA: the original ‘script’ of our genome, and a secondary and more powerful linguistic control system that sits on top of each gene.”
And what we do in our lifetime doesn’t only affect how our epigenome functions — it also affects our future generations. “The epigenetic alterations that you may acquire don’t just change your biology during your lifetime; some of these modifications can be passed on to future generations the follow you,” writes Pelletier.
Gene mapping is now a thing of the past. Instead, what epigenetic mapping offers is a way to see, for example, that people with Alzheimer’s disease, at some point, had epigenetic changes related to their immune system.
“At different points over a person’s lifetime we will be able to create a picture of that person’s ‘epigenetic state.’ Or, epidemiologists will be able to create ‘epigenetic maps’ of groups of people in a specific local to help explain their biological relationship with their immediate environment,” writes Pelletier.
One powerful example Pelletier gives is chronic inflammation, which contributes to numerous diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies. However, when we include anti-inflammatory foods like beets, broccoli, nuts, berries, and garlic in our diet, our risk is significantly lowered.
Similarly, when we begin to isolate food allergies and detoxify the body, we reset our biology, improve our ability to detect triggers, and reduce cravings and addictive behavior.
And due to epigenetic transgenerational inheritance, our dietary habits affect our children. Pelletier writes, “Epidemiological studies as well as animal experiments have shown that the maternal diet during pregnancy can produce epigenetic changes through altered methylation in the mother that are inherited by the offspring.”
Pelletier points to the long-term study of some 23,000 people which asked them to make four simple behavioral choices: not smoking; exercising 3.5 hours per week; eating a diet of fruits, vegetable, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and low red meat; and maintaining a healthy weight, which they defined as a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30.
After eight years, these people had a 93 percent lower risk of developing diabetes, an 81 percent reduction in heart attacks, a 50 percent fewer strokes, and 36 percent fewer cancers.
While early life trauma can also cause epigenetic changes, engaging in meditation, social support, and massage, and countering damaging unconscious beliefs can change the way the epigenome functions.
And stress — biological or psychological — affects every single one of our cells. Yet, so does happiness.
Pelletier writes, “Once a pathway is established in our mental or emotional life through habitual behaviors, it is self-perpetuating and continues its positive or negative influence on our physical and mental health until we intervene to change it. If your aim is to achieve optimal health, it is my firm belief that you must intervene on the side of creating positive changes to your present state of consciousness, which we now know can have long-lasting biological effects.”
Redefining our understanding of genetic influence and empowering our understanding of the impact our everyday choices have on our long-term health, Change Your Genes, Change Your Life is a goldmine for anyone interested in integrative medicine.
Change Your Genes, Change Your Life: Creating Optimal Health with the New Science of Epigenetics
Origin Press, October 2018
Paperback, 230 pages