Did you know that you have approximately 20,000 genes? Genes are inherited from your biological parents. Science has made great inroads with respect to identifying the human genome and some of the genes associated with different diseases.
While genetic predisposition for diseases puts you at increased risk, it does not mean you are destined to get those diseases. “Genetic nihilism” is a term coined by Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, to describe people who believe there’s nothing they can do if they have a genetic predisposition.
Some genetic diseases and disorders, such as Down syndrome, are present at birth.
Others, such as breast, colon and skin cancer, manifest later in life. These are the ones we may be able to prevent with a healthy lifestyle. How can we control gene expression? In other words, how can we help our body suppress our disease-causing genes from being expressed and promote the expression of our disease-preventing genes?
Exactly how to do so is not yet fully understood but there’s scientific support to indicate that there are a number of things we can do. While doing all the right things does not guarantee perfect health, it can significantly reduce our risks and empower us to live optimistically rather than throwing our hands up in the air because our close blood relatives have or had various diseases.
The more comprehensive lifestyle changes we make, according to Ornish, the more profound impact they’ll have on our health. http://tinyurl.com/yb82rjcw
What are these lifestyle factors?
Epigenetics investigates the expression and suppression of the genes we inherit at birth, and attempts to explain changes in how our genes express themselves as a direct result of our behaviour. Some factors that affect our genes are beyond our control, such as ageing. Environmental pollution and exposure to viruses and chemicals also affect genes. Some factors are within our control, though education, income and accessibility impact our choices: eating whole foods and more plant-based foods, using beauty and household products containing fewer toxins, preventing sunburns, getting vaccinations and taking precautions to prevent sexually transmitted diseases can impact our gene expression. Most of us have the choice whether to exercise, stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption but such behaviours are not always easy to achieve. Stress management and getting adequate sleep also impact our genes. Epigenetics suggest we have more control than previously thought when it comes to preventing the onset of both sporadic and heritable diseases.
Not only can we potentially change our own gene expression – for better or for worse – with our lifestyle habits, but we can pass down our altered genes to our future offspring and successive generations as well as influence our children’s lifestyle and impact their genes.
Genetics play a role in our risk for many physical and mental diseases. Advances in genetic testing means we may be able to find out if we carry genes for specific diseases, such as mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes which significantly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Finding out you carry one or more genes that put you at increased risk can be frightening. Genetic counsellors can help you decide if you want to find out and they can discuss options to reduce your risk should you carry such genes.
In addition to medical interventions such as surgery, it’s important to consider lifestyle modifications. For example, people who carry two copies of the specific genes associated with heart attacks and who are therefore at very high risk of having a heart attack had twice the risk of having a heart attack if they ate a diet lacking adequate fruits and vegetables, compared to people with the same genetic predisposition who ate a prudent diet. Studies on identical twins (such twins have identical genomes) in which one twin had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder found that molecules around the genes may play an important role in whether some diseases are present or not. http://tinyurl.com/y8lybkg2
We are not completely at the mercy of our genes. Nature and nurture both play a role in the development of many genetic diseases. Genes establish the potential for disease. While family history is a strong predictor of disease, our lifestyle choices and exposure to environmental factors can increase or reduce our risk of various diseases. Until science provides all the answers, your best bet for health may be to focus on fitness, eat right and enjoy life.