Now, we’re not talking complete magic here (though for the record that some scientists contend that epigenetic research is overblown). There’s no question that some sets of traits—our “genetic code”—really are intractable, such as the ones that dictate your hair and eye color. But doctors and researchers believe the majority of them can be considered “epigenetic code,” meaning those that can be coaxed in certain ways.
Besides altering your own predisposition for chronic diseases passed down for generations, “epigenetic inheritance” means that the choices we make now can affect our unborn children. Here comes the double-edged sword: If we make lifestyle choices that change our genes for the better, we can pass them on to our children to set them up for a healthier life. But if we make the choice to say, smoke, eat unhealthy foods, or do drugs, our decision becomes not just a physical one, but quite possibly a moral and ethical decision, too.
Epigenetics in Action
There is compelling evidence to how lifestyle factors can manipulate our genetic expression. A study performed by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and published in the journal, Science, found that an organism’s epigenetic code can not only evolve quicker than its genetic code, it can strongly influence biological traits. Although this particular research was performed with plants, the possible implications for humans are interesting. “We found that these plants have an epigenetic code that’s more flexible and influential than we imagined,” said Joseph Ecker, Ph.D., a professor in Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, said in a statement. “There is clearly a component of heritability that we don’t fully understand. It’s possible that we humans have a similarly active epigenetic mechanism that controls our biological characteristics and gets passed down to our children.”
Considering the possibility that our epigenetic code can be quickly altered, taking a proactive stance could mean more than simply making an effort to eat right and avoid risky lifestyle choices. Stress levels can have a significant impact too. Think about it: The body reacts to stressful situations by activating the nervous system and secreting adrenaline and noradrenaline in an evolutionary adaptation commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. The ill-effects of stress are well-documented, but a recent Duke study published in Nature underscored previous studies that found that chronic stress didn’t just lead to apparent health problems, but it resulted in actual DNA damage. The DNA injury may contribute to problems like the formation of tumors and premature aging. Stress is proven to contribute to gray hair, after all.
How You Can Take Control
“Basically, epigenetics is proof of what doctors have been saying all along in terms of controlling diet and stress,” says Dr. Frank Lipman, founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City and an expert in the field.
He believes we’re moving closer to a future where doctors will incorporate epigenetics into your treatment plans—i.e. if breast cancer runs in your family and you carry the gene, you should eat X-Y-Z to help avoid it—but in the meantime, he advocates sticking to a mainly plant-based diet and avoiding dairy and any meats that aren’t organic, grass-fed or free-range.
According to Lipman, the worst offender, especially if you don’t want to stimulate those premature aging genes, may be sugar. “Sugar is the most pro-aging food substance out there,” Lipman says. Beauty-wise, make sure to supplement your diet with fish oil pills (Omega 3 fatty acids), vitamin D3, probiotics and a good multivitamin, he says. And besides getting regular exercise, aim to limit everyday stressors. While you might not be able to control the 97 emails you get per day, you can make it a rule to turn off electronics at night and even on the weekends.
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