Genes Do Not Dictate Who You Are
‘Nature vs. nurture’ is how some of us were introduced to this topic in biology class.
But its not a binary choice, and science has learned that ‘environment’ – from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the places we live – has a profound effect on our core genetic markers.
We are often told how genetics are to blame for many health problems. They may even have an influence on your mood, habits, and propensity to be overweight. But they definitely do not dictate who you are, and what you will be in the future.
Most genes have to be activated by something in the environment. Others can be modulated by something called epigenetics. Let’s evaluate each one in detail.
Your genes, your decision
Yes, I had to make a genes / jeans joke to keep you on your toes : )
The point is, your environment plays an important role in activating your genes.
For example, we can take a look at myopia or nearsightedness.
This visual problem is highly heritable, and most nearsighted parents have nearsighted children. But if we look back at the past, hunter-gatherers rarely suffered from nearsightedness. All points out that the genes will only activate when exposed to an environmental condition, such as doing detailed work, working in low light, and reading.
Similarly, you’re not destined to be a diabetic or have a heart attack if your parents or close relatives suffered from these health problems. What you do with your diet and physical activity is what really dictates if those genes are going to be activated or not, and to what degree.
The science of epigenetics
Epigenetics is an interesting part of genetics that evaluates the interplay between environmental changes and 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.
With more than 20,000 genes, what happens when different combinations of genes are being turned on or off? That prospect is extraordinary. If we could map every single cause and effect of the different combinations, and if we could control the triggering mechanisms or activation switches, then we could hypothetically cure all diseases.
But for now, let’s be more modest. Epigenetics is based on the understanding that not all genes are activated at the same time. Different parts of the DNA strand are strongly packed together and tightly coiled. In this situation, they stay inactive, and may remain so or activate depending on certain circumstances.
You may have, say 6 genes for overweight and 3 favorable genes. So, if you decide to live an active life instead of being sedentary, those 3 favorable genes become active against one or two active genes for overweight. Even if you have a propensity to be overweight, epigenetics work on your favor and that’s how you can beat your own genetics.
So, what can you do to stay in charge? Personalized nutrition
Before you reach for a DNA kit, understand that may be impractical or even useless – at present. The best thing you can do is to try a little trial and error: you want to tailor your diet and habits to fit your desired lifestyle – and that will lead to long term, sustainable results.
To put it another way: you know how people get mocked for going on different diets all the time? As it happens, that makes good sense. A diet that works for your friend Meghan might NOT work for you. You have to do a little experimentation. If Keto works, great, if you have another preferred approach, give it a whirl!
But if you want to behave epigenetically, properly speaking, here are some broad measures you can take to optimize not just your own health but that of your future children and even grandchildren – that’s right, your epigenetic markers are also passed on to the next generation.
- Reduce your sitting time to less than 4 hours per day. Use active sitting, instead. See here.
- Prepare your own food and choose healthy ingredients and recipes
- Make sure that your dietary recommendations are always met. Hire a nutritionist if you’re unsure
- Avoid processed foods and read labels to identify and avoid synthetic ingredients you cannot pronounce
- Give more importance to preventative medicine
- Identify your risks along with your doctor and use natural alternatives to reduce their likelihood
- Reduce your intake of alcohol and don’t smoke
Depending on your predisposition, you may need to pay more attention to one recommendation or the other. But the message is clear: Your genes can be bent to your favor sometimes, especially when it comes to chronic disease, overweight, obesity, and physical performance.
You can always max out and overstep your own boundaries, turning a scrawny child into a bodybuilder or an overweight girl with diabetic parents into a long-lived woman with an admirable health and lucidity despite her age.