Most of us were raised to believe that the genes we were born with are our destiny, and that the diseases that “run in the family” are most likely coming for us too. I myself have wrestled with this demon, as I have a strong family history of heart disease and I, now in my 60s, have many of the markers indicating that I should have heart disease as well.
Yet I have escaped the condition that seemed to be the genetic destiny of the other men in my family. Why? Because even though I have all the genetic markers for heart disease, I don’t necessarily have to develop that condition. Whether I do will be determined by how I live my life: what I eat, how much I move, whether I get enough good sleep, how well I release stress, and which supplements I take. We all have a lot more control over our health than we think.
Where does our control lie? True, we can’t change our genes. But in the vast majority of cases, we can change how our genes express themselves. The science of genetic expression is known as epigenetics, and it is one of the most exciting frontiers of medical science.
Of course, some of our genes will always express themselves in the same way. For example, the genes that determine eye color are fixed by the time we emerge from the womb. No matter what we eat, we can’t turn our brown eyes blue! Likewise, certain genetic conditions, such as sickle-cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease, are not affected by diet or lifestyle. If you have the genes for those conditions, you’ll suffer from those disorders no matter what you do.
The good news is that these “fixed” genes make up only about 2 percent of the total. The other 98 percent can be turned on or off. This is true for most of the disorders we associate with aging—Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. What you eat, how you exercise, whether you get enough sleep, how well you release stress, and which supplements you take to address your particular nutrient needs can all have an enormous impact on whether you develop these conditions—regardless of your genetic destiny. Your exposure to environmental toxins and your ability to detoxify your body also affect your genetic expression.
Whether you know it or not, you are affecting your own genetics daily and perhaps even hourly through the foods you eat, the air you breathe, and even the thoughts you think. For example, you might have been born with a “fat” gene causing a tendency to obesity. Guess what—you can overcome your “fat” gene by avoiding sugar, refined starches, and the many other foods that disrupt your metabolism and imbalance your gut.
Or perhaps you were born with a gene giving you a predisposition to diabetes, or autoimmune disorders, or, like me, heart disease. Yes, you are more likely than other people to develop those disorders. However, you can turn off those genes by making the healthy choices that will maintain a healthy gut, support your friendly bacteria, and heal your inflammation.
Several studies have shown that lifestyle changes, both good and bad, trigger changes in gene expression. We have already seen how my own lifestyle changes have so far prevailed over my genetic tendency to heart disease. Likewise, many people have family histories of obesity and/or diabetes, yet with the right diet and lifestyle, they can avoid these chronic conditions.
It works the other way too. Your genetic inheritance includes at least some genes that improve your resilience, increase your longevity, and help you fight cancer. But if you smoke cigarettes or eat junk food rather than real food, you shut those genes down and inhibit their expression. Both good and bad choices continually “speak” to our genes and thereby modify the way our genes express themselves.
This is another reason why I am confident that you don’t have to get fat and you don’t have to feel old. Even if your parents suffered from an age-related disease—hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, stroke, or even cancer—you don’t have to go down that road. When you learn how to support your body, you are also learning how to shape your own genetic expression. Every day—maybe even every hour—your genes are responding to the food you eat, the air you breathe, the stress you encounter, the choices you make.
This is epigenetics, and it allows functional medicine to make an extraordinary promise:
Feed your genes the right “information” and you will modify the expression of your genes, improving the way your whole body functions.
And this is another reason why you don’t have to get fat and feel old, no matter what your family history might be. By following the precepts in my new book, you can reshape your genetic destiny, avoid age-related diseases, and live a life of glowing health.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat……And How YOU Can Stay Young, Slim and Happy.