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Epigenetics

Are Our Minds and Bodies Slaves of Our Genes?

          At the end of the 20th century, there was a lot of excitement around the unveiling of the secrets of the human genome.  But one of the results of all the excitement was a rather grim view of human beings as victims of our genes.  People became frightened at the prospect of discovering they might have the dreaded gene for cancer, dementia, or some other horrible disease for which there was no cure.

          Also according to this view, if you were unusually gifted at something – like music, sports, or academics – you deserved little if any credit for it.  You just happened to be born with good genes.
 
         And if you were lazy, overweight, anxious, or depressed – well, that had very little to do with you as well.  It was just your unfortunate genes.  

          But it turns out that was a mistaken view.

Or Can Our Mind Master Our Genes?

          We are not the helpless victims of our genes. In fact, there’s a whole new area of genetics, called “epigenetics,” that tells a far more hopeful story.

          You may be born with a scary-sounding gene, but whether or not that gene becomes activated depends a lot on you.

Understanding Epigenetics:
Playing the Keyboard of Our Genes

          Our genes are located along strands of DNA.  If you think of the DNA strand as a piano, then the genes are like individual piano keys or notes you can play.  On a piano, it’s only the keys that are actually being played that make the music we hear.  In the same way, it’s only the genes that are “played,” or activated, which affect our physical and mental makeup – including everything from eye color to height, intelligence to physical health, and various aspects of our personality.  

          What determines whether or not a gene is active?

          There are chemical reactions within our cells that act like switches, turning a gene on or off at specific times for specific reasons.  

          So for example, we have genes that cause cancer, and genes that prevent it. Whether or not we actually get cancer depends on which of those genes is switched on and which is switched off.  Epigenetics is the science that studies the factors that influence when and how particular switches are turned on and off.

          There are some factors that affect our gene switches that we have no control over - things like the degree of nurturing we received as kids, or the level of toxins in the air we breathe and food we eat.  

          However, there are many factors over which we potentially have a great deal of control – meaning there’s a lot we can do to affect which of our genes get activated.  For example, how much exercise we do, or what kind of food we eat can affect whether certain genes are turned on or turned off.   What’s perhaps more surprising is that even our thoughts, our moods, and our ability to focus our attention can influence whether or not the genes for diseases like autism, diabetes, asthma, schizophrenia, and heart disease get activated.

          To give a specific example, say you have a gene, which when active, would cause you to have ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).  By learning to focus your attention through breathing and related techniques, the activity of the “ADHD” genes can be reduced or turned off altogether.  

          But epigenetic factors not only have the power to make us healthier, they can also make us sick.

Are Our Genes at the Mercy of Stress in Our Lives?

          Stressful situations – like losing a job or being in a war – often cause the release of stress hormones.  If the stress is long-lasting, these hormones can negatively affect both our physical and mental health.  The hormones also act as epigenetic factors that influence our gene expression.  Even after a stressful event is over, its effect on our genes can continue for months or even years.  

          So does that mean the effect of stress on our genes dooms us to long-term physical and mental suffering?

          Dr. Herbert Benson, best known for his book “The Relaxation Response,” recently conducted a study comparing the stress-related genes of long-term meditators to those of people who never practiced meditation.  In the meditators, he found more than 1,000 stress-related genes had been turned off.  In the non-meditators, only half that amount were turned off.  This has important implications for our health, because the more stress-related genes we have that are turned on, the more likely we are to have high blood pressure, chronic pain, diabetes, and other stress-related conditions.

          But fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Benson then trained the non-meditators to use a simple meditation technique. After practicing it for eight weeks, he re-examined their genetic make-up.  And what he found was that just eight weeks of meditating turned off an additional 433 stress-related genes. 

Turning Off Cancer Genes

          In another study, Dr. Dean Ornish, of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, studied the effect of meditation and lifestyle changes on the genes of men with early stage prostate cancer. Lifestyle changes included exercise, a low-fat, whole foods diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, beans, and soy protein, and strengthening of their social support network.  

          Ornish found that after meditating and making these lifestyle changes, the men “were able to alter the expression of [over 500] cancer-relevant genes… Many disease-promoting genes were 'turned off,' whereas protective, disease-preventing genes were 'turned on’.”  And these genes related to more than just prostate cancer: “the Selectin E gene, which promotes inflammation and is elevated in breast cancer, was also 'turned off.' A gene called SFRP, that prevents tumor formation, was 'turned on'. . .”  And genes that increase oxidation and inflammation – factors that contribute to heart disease – were turned off as well.

          Ornish concluded, “In every case where we could identify the gene change, it went in a healthy direction.”

Turning Off Dementia Genes

          Some people who have genes for dementia actually develop the disease, whereas others with the same genes do not. Why the difference?  Research hasn’t yet come up with a definitive answer, but early results clearly point to the likelihood that epigenetic factors like smoking, psychological trauma, diet, exercise, and the way we manage stress all play a role.  

          So if you want to greatly increase your odds against getting dementia as you get older, it’s a pretty safe bet you can do so by increasing your stress tolerance, eating well, exercising moderately – and perhaps most important, developing your MPFC.  And that’s true even if you have genes that predispose you to developing it.

Summing Up Epigenetics

          Science writer, Sharon Begley, sums up the field of epigenetics this way: “The genes in our cells don’t matter one iota if they’re not turned on, and there are many things in life that can turn off bad genes (such as those that raise the risk of breast cancer) . . . It really is time to stop thinking of our DNA as immutable. Even thinking can change it.”

What's love got to do with it?
Love and Our Genes

          Most people accept the idea that childhood experiences can influence how we turn out as adults.  And you probably don’t need scientific research to tell you whether the outcome will be better or worse when kids are treated with love and care.  But scientists are now discovering some of the specific biological mechanisms by which loving care can change the way our genes are expressed.

          Dr. Michael Meaney, a neurologist at McGill University, observed that rats who received extra licking and grooming as babies grew up to be more intelligent and less susceptible to stress than baby rats who received less attention.  He then discovered that the well-nurtured rats produced less of a stress hormone called cortisol, and that their hippocampus – a part of the brain involved in mood stress regulation – was more developed.          

Training Your Brain
Changes Your Genes

          It’s helpful that scientific research has now confirmed what we already knew – that it’s good to love and care for your children.  It may also be helpful to know that a number of scientific disciplines have now identified specific qualities which you can develop by training your brain that promote optimal gene expression – qualities like self-awareness, self-regulation, persistence in the face of failure, compassion, and optimism, among others. 

          If you’ve gotten this far reading through the brain pages on this site, you’ll have no trouble recognizing these as qualities of a balanced, integrated brain!

          And now there’s overwhelming evidence that these qualities are also better predictors of future academic and occupational success than a person’s IQ score!