So claimed a newspaper article about the DNA of dead celebrities. Don’t tell me you missed it! Elvis, it seems, had “a flaw in his DNA and his early death was his genetic destiny.”
This is at least misleading, if not simply, outright untrue. Elvis’ genes were not his destiny – and neither are yours – but it seems the only message we ever hear is that our genes are in charge. Just a couple of days later the same paper tells us, “Genes reveal why obesity can run in family”. And so it continues.
What we’re told – repeatedly – is that it’s the good or bad luck of whatever genes you happened to inherit that determines your health and well-being – how well you will live and and even how long. This notion of genetic destiny seems confirmed when people you know develop a disease that runs in their family, such as diabetes, arthritis or any other condition.
Of course our genes play a part, but what is that part, and how important is it? Is it inevitable that genetic flaws create disease? It can happen, but it’s actually rare. The way I’ve come to understand the power of our genes is through analogies. I’ve come across a few, and here are two versions:
- You take some good quality seeds, throw half of them on rich soil and water them regularly. The other half you throw onto a toxic trash heap. It’s predictable that the second lot of seeds, if they grow at all, will be poor versions of the first. All of those seeds contained identical genes; the difference was the environment in which they lived. (1)
- You can think of genes as keys on a piano. On each piano, one or two of the keys are a bit out of tune, but there’s still a huge range of possibilities as to the tunes those pianos could produce. A classical pianist will make them sound a certain way, which will be very different to how a jazz pianist will play those keys, which will be massively different (I assure you) to how I’d play them. Pretty much the same keys; the real difference is in their action, the way they’re expressed. (2)
It’s not that genes don’t matter at all, because the particular collection of genes you inherited will influence and suggest a particular direction. But it’s not one or two genes; it’s hundreds working together, with each one slightly increasing the chances of a certain process in the body not working quite as well as it does in another person. While this other person has genes that can increase their vulnerability to a different process not working so well.
Not only that, but the genes themselves do not even control this influence. What’s in control is their environment: the soil, the pianist. For our genes, the environment refers to the health of the cells in which they live.
This is studied within the relatively new science of epigenetics; ‘epi’ meaning above and beyond the gene. You know you don’t get to change your genes, so it can seem that if you are “doomed to die young”, this is your tough luck. You are just a helpless victim, with very little control, ultimately, over your health. But the science of epigenetics demonstrates that the expression (or behaviour) of at least the vast majority of your genes can be changed.
First, understand that it’s the cellular environment that makes the difference, not the genes themselves. If someone has genes that make them vulnerable to a particular kind of cancer, those genes don’t necessarily become active. A very specific cellular environment needs to be created before those genes become expressed and begin to develop that cancer.
By changing the cellular environment, you change the active expression of your genes. You change the soil in which the seeds are grown; you change the pianist and play a different tune. This applies whether you are talking about the development of a disease state, the prevention or treatment of it. (3)
The article about Elvis said, “the bad diet and hard living clearly did not help” but this is precisely how we are being misled. Far from simply not helping, it’s the bad diet that created the poor cellular environment that caused the expression of those genes in the form of heart disease.
Different genes would have influenced a different sort of malfunction, and Elvis would have been “doomed to die young” of something else. On the other hand, had he made different choices, especially with what he ate, Elvis might be alive today. Of course that might not matter to you in the slightest, but this is relevant to everyone made out of cells with genes, including you.
As far as excess weight is concerned, although around 150 genes have been identified as being associated with obesity, their effect is regarded as “modest”, perhaps accounting for around 2% of excess weight. It’s not the genes we inherit, but the epigenetic processes that make the difference. In this case, these epigenetic processes are mostly influenced by “increased consumption of energy-dense food”. (4)
Stress and emotions, both positive and negative, can regulate genetic expression, and toxicity too is an important factor in our cellular health. But given almost any genetic inheritance, diet is by far the most important factor in the cellular environment for our genes, for better or for worse.
“What really matters is how your genes interact with the accumulation of your choices… Your diet directly correlates to your cells’ ability to function.” (1)
“There is no drug anywhere that can regulate genetic expression better or more powerfully than your diet can.” (5)
Have you come to accept some particular poor health – either already present or an anticipated future fate – because you believe it’s inevitable? It could be time to take another look at that.
The way forward might not be immediately obvious, but at least this conversation opens a door to the possibility of a better outcome. I am convinced that I have at least delayed the onset of the expression of some of the genes I inherited, in more ways than one.
1. “The Wahls Protocol” (Avery, 2014) Dr Terry Wahls – pages 23-25
2. “Spectrum of gluten-related disorders.” Dr Alessio Fasano, Harvard University, online lecture, published 2014.
3. “Role of epigenetics in inflammation-associated diseases.” Shanmugam MK, Sethi G (2013) Subcellular Biochemistry 61:627-657
4. “Genetic and epigenetic control of metabolic health.” Schwenk RW, Vogel H (2013) Molecular Metabolism 2(4):337-347
5. “Primal Body, Primal Mind” (Healing Arts Press, 2011) Nora Gedgaudas