You Can’t Blame Your Parents For Your Health!

Epigenetics explained.

The conventional wisdom used to be that our inherited genes determined our health and what diseases (if any) we might be susceptible to – this was termed biological determinism. So, in essence, the genes that we inherited from our parents governed our resilience and longevity, thus our fate was locked in stone…or in our genome. If this was the case, we would have little to no motivation to eat well, maximise sleep or exercise as there would be no reward. The wisdom around genetics has evolved somewhat to include the significance of external factors on health and currently its accepted that its influence is around 90% of your health.

That’s pretty significant in anyone’s books!

No longer should we rest on our laurels and accept the cards we have been dealt but take action to improve our health. The most effective and efficient driver for our own health is us….which harps back to my concept of becoming the custodian of our health which is a fancy way of saying – take control! No one should care more about our own health than YOU and knowing that external factors (your ecosystem) influence 90% of our health I personally think that is advantageous.

Some top-line factors that will affect our health and wellbeing include:

• Diet
• Exercise
• Sleep
• Stress
• Parental health at the time of conception and delivery
• Pollution
• Breastfed.
• Alcohol Consumption
• Drug Consumption
• Proximity to nature
• Mediation

It’s not that our environment and lifestyle (external factors) change our genes, but it affects the way there are expressed or as Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, puts it “Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger”. I actually love Dr Chris Kresser’s summary of the Epigenetics – “…a better analogy for genes might be a script for a theatre production or film. Our genes are like the script, and the exposome and epigenome are like the production and performance. The script of Romeo and Juliet does not change from one production to the next, but how it is produced and performed can vary dramatically depending on the director, cast, crew, set design, costumes, and other factors. If a script is terrible, even a great performance can’t save it. On the other hand, the best script in the world won’t matter with terrible production.”

Efforts to study epigenetics was introduced by Wild in 2005 – ‘exposome’ which is the measure of all the exposures that an individual has in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health. An individual’s exposure begins before birth and includes insults from environmental and occupational sources. Some exposure can leave a legacy, in that the impact on health might not be felt for years or even decades. Knowing that the biggest driver of health and resilience to disease is our external factors is comforting for most. If you’re reading this for the first time and your brain is now going into panicked overdrive because your exposure to certain pollutants, chemicals from work or travel – try not to be too alarmed – remember we are robust organisms but use this information to shape your lifestyle and environment. It is important for health and longevity to cultivate your own micro-environment (personal ecosystem) which you can do by living in a particular area which is low in pollutants or change habits and behaviour within your existing environments – any positive change to your environment is an amplification of your health.

There is a risk to free-fall into a panic knowing that everything you touch, smell, feel and ingest can affect your health…and it can, but I know I would rather know this than to be ignorant to the fact. Knowledge in this instance allows you to act upon any environmental situation and move towards health. Harnessing and cultivating your own environment is becoming the custodian of your own health. Up-regulating the health-enhancing external factors and down-regulating the disease-enhancing external factors is taking control over your health outcomes. Granted there are several factors which you may have little control over such as exposure to traffic pollution on the way to work, but perhaps you could mitigate exposure to it by travelling a less polluted route, flipping your car air-circulatory system to ‘closed’, travelling with a face mask or working from home more often.

The same can be said for stress as an external/environmental factor, is there anything you can do to mitigate, reduce or minimise the amount of stress in your day. Again, stress is probably an inevitable factor but it is how we contend with it and manage it that will govern its magnitude and the impact on our health. There are plenty of techniques that could help reduce the impact of stress on your health, and out of all the external factors, stress is one which is arguably the most silent but one which will leave its legacy. Stress is sadly part and parcel of the western lifestyle, it is certainly present in my world. As I age it’s having less of an effect but it’s definitely there at times, but wisdom is providing a cushion or reassuring crutch….oh and my incredibly supportive wife who is always there to peel me off the ceiling during the peak times. I often think she should write a book on managing stress due to her bulletproof resolve despite what life throws her way…but that is a separate conversation. Having a distinct demarcation between work and home is a challenging thing to do well but helpful for stress levels.

Identical twins offer researchers the clearest insight into the role of epigenetic. Identical twins share the same gene sequence, so according to the old wisdom, the twins would have identical health outcomes, but this is rarely the case. The largest twin study on epigenetic profiles yet revealed the extent to which lifestyle and age can impact gene expression. Manel Esteller of the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid found that 35% of twin pairs had significant differences in DNA methylation and histone modification profiles.

“Statistical analysis suggested that older twin pairs were more epigenetically different than younger twins. It also revealed that twins who reported having spent less time together during their lives, or who had different medical histories, had the greatest epigenetic differences.

So, despite coming into this world a cookie-cutter version of his/her twin the variability in gene expression is clearly a result of environmental factors – exercise, diet, sleep, stress etc. Interestingly the older aged twins revealed greater variability of a gene expressed due to the accumulative effects of some environmental factors. Exposure to some factors might take decades to manifest in the physical form, which solidifies the importance of curating your personal ecosystem – your masterplan. Your health will be determined by what you do consistently over the greatest period of time – every bite, slurp and action is an opportunity to amplify our health. Understanding the risks and threats to health as well as the levers can help to improve the long-term health of not just you and I, but our community and the rest of the western world. Find out more here 

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