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Flipping the Switch on Genes Affecting Disease

When my doctor first told me that he thought I had Lupus, he couldn’t offer me a cure or a cause. By way of explanation for why my immune system had turned on my normal healthy tissue, he said that the disease was probably genetic. The implication was that I got dealt an unlucky hand and there wasn’t anything more I could do.  

I’ve spoken to many other people who have been told the same thing when they were given a chronic illness diagnosis. In fact genetic inheritability is often quoted in statistics to explain disease. For instance if your parents had Type 1 diabetes, there’s an 86% chance you’ll have the gene for it.  But when I started looking into the science of mind body medicine for my film The Connection, I discovered that the explanation that ‘it’s all in your genes and there’s not much you can do’ no longer stands up as a prognosis. Thanks to a new field of science called epigenetics, we now know that genes are affected by an intricate interplay between our environment, our diet, our mind and our biology.  

At this point it’s useful to have a little understanding of what genes are and how they affect your health. If you imagine your body is a house under construction, then your genes are like the blueprint. They sit in almost every cell in your body and contain instructions for carrying out bodily functions. Proteins (the builders, plumbers and electrical engineers of your body) use the genetic blueprint as a guide on what to do, when to do it, and where to put things. You inherit half your genes from each of your biological parents and if your parents, grandparents or other relatives have an illness, you have a greater risk of getting that illness.  

Until recently, scientists viewed your genetic blueprint as locked in - fixed and unchangeable. But this view of human biology couldn’t explain why one member of a pair of identical twins can develop bipolar disorder or asthma while the other one remains healthy. As epigenetic research emerges, we are starting to understand that while the presence of a gene doesn’t change, the expression of the gene is flexible - for good and for bad.  For example this study shows that training mice to be fearful of a smell can be passed down at least two generations. This study shows that when a male mouse that has been exposed to conditions making him depressed and anxious, he passes these behaviors to his offspring.  

Studies are also being done on humans. One significant body of research is showing that the experience of Holocaust victims during World War II can be passed down to the next generation in the form of a kind of genetic memory. This study for example shows that the genetic biological markers for post traumatic stress can be found in the children of Holocaust survivors.  While genetic mechanisms alone can’t be blamed for our health woes, what’s becoming clear is that the experiences of your parents, grandparents and other relatives may be having an impact on your health.  

The good news is that research is indicating that if you actively work to remove the environmental pressures (whether those pressures are based around nutrition, emotional stress, chemical exposure etc), it’s possible to reverse the damage. The presence of a gene won’t change but the gene expression is flexible. Essentially, we can switch genes on and off. What this means is that there is far more that we can do for our health than we ever thought possible.  

So how do we flip the switch?   Regular readers of my blog will already be familiar with the work being done by scientists at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine who taught people to meditate over 8 weeks. What they discovered was remarkable. Genes that counteract the chemical effects of stress got turned up and genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion turned down. Even more remarkably they discovered that the genomic expression changes occurred the very first time people meditated.  

The more they meditated, the more anchored was the positive genomic response. Although the study was relatively small, it has significant implications for people with autoimmune and metabolic diseases.  During our interview for my film, Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was involved in the study, told me that daily practice of meditation is vital to maintain the genomic response and that he suspects long-term practice of relaxation techniques like meditation can significantly enhance these genetic benefits.  

In his book summarizing the latest research on epigenetics, Dr. Craig Hassed from Monash University who's also featured in The Connection, explains that while epigenetic science is mind boggling, the take home principles for health that arise from it are amazingly simple. Essentially the key is to:

  1. Eat good food
  2. Be physically active
  3. Have a healthy state of mind
  4. Get on with each other
  5. Look after the environment

  ‘It’s extraordinary to think we can be sitting in a chair practicing a mindfulness technique like meditation and practicing genetic engineering at the same time,’ he told me.  

If you’re interested in epigenetics and learning more about how to switch your genes on and off, I’ve recently finished reading Dr. Hassed’s book on epigenetics and the mind body connection and I highly recommend it. The book is not widely available in stores, but his publisher Michelle Anderson Publishing has generously allowed me to sell the book from my web store here

You can download the first chapter for FREE HERE.

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