Your looks, behaviour, and mental capacity depend significantly on your genes. You may not be able to change your eye colour, but you can affect how bright they sparkle. Changing your hair color may not be possible, but dietary choices can make it stronger. You can’t really alter your height, but you can change your body shape.
You can even change how your body fights disease.
Epigenetics is the study of how behaviour and environmental factors affect gene expression. So get ready to put some limiting beliefs aside as we explore how epigenetics upgrades your gene expression and maximizes your human potential.
Your genes do not determine your fate. It’s common to hear people say that their disease, appearance, or mental capacity is “genetic”.
In most cases, that’s just not true.
The reality is that our daily activities, thoughts, and motivations largely determine how our bodies look, feel, and function.
In other words, if you want to look like an athlete, eat and train like one. If you desire a ballerina’s body, dance for hours each day and eat small portions of healthy food. If you want to think like a genius, read some great books and study for hours each day.
Great Genetics Is Part of the Equation
Some people think that athletes, dancers, and scientists were born with superior genetics, which is why they are successful. In some cases, they are correct: we are born with a set of codes (genes) that express factors that include eye and hair colour, height, weight gain patterns, and strength.
However, if someone with prized genetics continuously fuels their body with fast food and watches trash TV all day, those genes will express differently. They will gain weight, lose strength and IQ points, and get sick more often.
Blood sugar will go up, possibly causing diabetes.
Inflammation will increase, increasing the risk of arthritis.
Toxins will overload their system, triggering multiple diseases, including cancer.
So was it the genes that caused these diseases or the lifestyle habits? What about air quality, water pollution, and pesticides in food? Besides external triggers and lifestyle habits, our genetic expression also depends on other factors, including our mental state, emotions, and relationships.
Genes, DNA, and the Instructions of Life
To understand epigenetics, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of genetic theory.
Genes are made up of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).
DNA is a polymer – a substance or material consisting of very large molecules with subunits that keep on repeating. Polymers are all around us, such as natural polymers like DNA and synthetic polymers like polyester.
DNA’s polymer structure is composed of two polynucleotide chains that coil around each other to form a double helix that looks like this:
These polynucleotide chains carry genetic instructions for how we grow, develop, and function. They are composed of monomeric units called nucleotides. Each nucleotide is composed of one of four nitrogen-containing nucleobases – or “building blocks” – denoted by the letters C, G, A, and T:
- C: Cytosine
- G: Guanine
- A: Adenine
- T: Thymine
These letters form themselves into a DNA sequence. Sequencing DNA is the process where scientists determine the order of these four DNA building blocks to learn what genetic information is in that segment.
How Epigenetics Works
Your body doesn’t read all the instructions in your DNA genetic manual. Some scientists believe that our bodies code less than 2 percent of our DNA. The rest – over 98% – is called “junk DNA” by some researchers, however that idea is false.
Epigenetics works to highlight important parts of your DNA code and ignore others. It’s similar to highlighting parts of a text in different colors to tell the reader what’s important, and what can be ignored. Since we don’t use all our DNA, epigenetics highlights specific instructions on some parts of our DNA while leaving other parts alone.
This is accomplished through epigenetic markings that either change DNA or its packaging components to alter gene expression. There are different types of epigenetic marks, and each has unique processing instructions.
Marks aren’t fixed like a DNA sequence. Instead, they change throughout our lives in response to outside influences.
Epigenetics Research Findings
So what does all this theory mean for us? Basically, you can think of DNA as code that contains lots of instructions that can result in many different outcomes. Epigenetics studies how our choices can change some of those instructions, or turn them on or off.
For example, obesity is falsely believed to have a genetic component. However, instead of blaming genes, obese parents may pass on personal habits to their children that result in higher obesity rates.
The same can be said for other diseases, like heart conditions, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Genes passed from older to younger generations may not cause these conditions, but may predispose offspring to develop these diseases due to shared cultural and lifestyle habits.
Some more research findings include:
- Plastic additives such as bisphenol A (BPA) that are linked to cancer with the potential to exert effects through epigenetic modification
- How exercise creates patterns of epigenetic marks on muscle and fatty tissue
- Weight gain, high triglycerides, and elevated LDL cholesterol in the offspring of people that suffered from The Dutch Hunger Winter of 1945
Research on epigenetics is still in its early stages, however one conclusion is clear: Our choices not only affect our own genes but can also alter the health of future generations.
How to Make Epigenetics Work For You
Epigenetics may be complicated, but the end lesson is to follow basic health advice:
- Never eat processed food
- Eat when hungry and stop when full
- Supplement with minerals
- Exercise in a balanced way
- Reduce and manage stress
- Choose a meditation practice
Connecting to a power greater than ourselves also helps put things into perspective. There is an order to the universe that most of us don’t understand. Learning to connect to that power through spiritual practices can reduce stress, ease suffering, and provide direction in a time of chaos.
It’s true that some people are born with “superior” genetics, and not everyone can be a star athlete or supermodel. But that’s only part of the equation.
Being “great” requires far more effort than shooting a ball or posing in a bikini. The reality is that everyone was born with a unique set of genes – and epigenetics is the process that allows us to discover our true potential for greatness.
Photo by Warren Umoh on Unsplash