There was a time when we thought genetics pre-determined our fate. For some of us, maybe that was comforting? Well, if my fate is sealed, I might as well have this double fudge sundae...or these delectable fried chicken wings...or this divine Bordeaux...after all, it doesn’t really matter.
I hate to burst the pre-deterministic bubble that you’ve been living in...but you actually are responsible for your health and wellness. Recent studies have shown that our epigenome is influenced by our habits and lifestyle. In fact, an overwhelming majority of our health is affected by our lifestyle choices.
What is the epigenome, anyway?
The genome is the sum total of all of the genes in your body. We each have an estimated 30,000 genes in our genome; these genes determine our characteristics (e.g., hair color, eye color, height). Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as a one to one cause-effect: one gene can affect several traits and one trait may be affected by several genes. However, for our purposes, it’s just important to understand that our genes are determined at birth, our genes are fixed and our genes influence our characteristics.
Your epigenome, on the other hand, is a multitude of chemical compounds that can tell the genome what to do. If the genome is the light bulb, the epigenome is the light switch that turns the light on or off. Therefore, the epigenome is actually what affects the expression of genes. Most importantly, the epigenome is not fixed (like the genome) and can change throughout a person's lifetime. Changes to the epigenome can be positive (e.g., as a result of exercise or meditation) or negative (e.g., as a result of smoking or a poor diet). There are tons of studies that are coming out now to demonstrate what does and does not affect our epigenetics; this is a constantly evolving area of science so stay tuned.
Genetics and epigenetics can best be explained in the context of twins. Identical twins always have the same genes, but they often will have different epigenetics (the expression of their genes). A notable twin study shows that how we live our lives is more important than who our parents are.
Suffice it to say, there is still a lot we don’t know...but we do know this: you are largely in control of your gene expression! What you eat, how you move, how much you sleep and how you manage stress are all epigenetic modulators and they are all under your control.
That’s right, YOU are in charge. So, take the reins and buck up.