“We don’t just inherit our biology, we impact our biology.”
~ David Shenk
I’ve got some bad news and I’ve got some good news: your body’s superstructure is constantly under revision, based on how you live your life.
In the field of epigenetics this is known as gene expression. The brain, mind, genome and microbiome (or second genome), can all act as a single system, influencing our level of well-being at any given moment.
Epigenetics is a seriously hot topic in the scientific community right now, possibly poised on the edge of breakthroughs we can only dream of at the moment. Dr. Bruce Lipton calls it the science of human empowerment.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Our genetic blueprint is fixed for life (hardwired), but how our blueprint manifests is not.
Although the recent scientific breakthrough of CRISPR could change that…
Our genes are physical blueprints to make proteins, the primal element of life, and there are around 150,000 proteins in the human body. ‘Protein’ hails from the Latin for ‘primary particle’.
Behind the scenes of your interesting genes
Epi comes from the Greek for ‘upon’, the study of what is on top of genetics. We may have inherited ‘hardwired’ genes from our parents, but the science of epigenetics shows us that it’s environmental signals that control biology.
In physical terms, epi refers to the sheath of proteins and chemicals that cushion and modify each strand of DNA. The entire amount of epigenetic modification of the DNA in the body is known as the epigenome.
“Our genes are a predisposition, but they are not our fate. The biological mechanisms that affect our health and well-being are often extraordinarily dynamic – for better and for worse. When we eat well, move more, stress less, and love more, our bodies often have a remarkable ability to transform and heal.”
~ Dean Ornish M.D. (founder and president, Preventative Medicine Research Institute, and Clinical professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco).
Earth’s 3 billion year old genetic legacy is present inside everyone. Human DNA is an unbroken evolutionary genetic chain containing eons of cellular memory that each of us shares, and it is responsive to everything that happens in our lives.
The DNA that’s present inside our cells is magnificent – a complex combination of chemicals and proteins that holds the entire past, present, and future of all life on our planet.
“If DNA is the storehouse for billions of years of evolution, the epigenome is the storehouse of short-term genetic activities, both very recent and extending back one, two or several generations.
Epigenetics is the study of whether the memory of personal experience – yours, your father’s, your great-grandmother’s may be immediately passed on.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes).
An environmental toxin can trigger epigenetic changes, but so can a strong emotion like fear, as seen in studies on mice.
A basic overview with Dr. Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna :
How we react to our daily life, physically and psychologically can be passed on through ‘soft’ inheritance.
Epigenetics and pregnancy
Sadly, through my pregnancy and at the time my eldest son was born, I was under severe emotional and mental stress, and I’m sure this affected him in utero. I also had gestational diabetes.
I was let down by the health system when he was a young child. It took until his teens to get a diagnosis (high functioning) on the the autism spectrum, and he has battled debilitating bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia.
In Super Genes I read about a Dutch study which concluded that if new mothers are stressed, their stress actually changes the microbiome of their infants. Disturbances, or dysbiosis of the microbiome is now thought to be a major factor in developing autism.
But there is positive new science about this. This interesting article talks about how the consequences of trauma can be reversed.
Hindsight and education is a wonderful thing…
I have myself experienced a ‘softwired’ memory and love of classical music from my mother, who used to play Chopin and Beethoven piano sonatas when she was pregnant with me. Music has always played a positive, defining role in my life.
Chopra and Tanzi expand on what they see as the most far-reaching epigentic human study done to date, which was on the effects of the Dutch famine, the Hongerwinter (“hunger winter”).
The Nazis, who were in the early stages of facing defeat, enforced a food and supplies embargo during the harsh winter of 1944-45. Food stocks in Western Holland soon dwindled and daily adult rations in Amsterdam dropped to below 1,000 calories by the end of November 1944, and then to 580 calories by the end of February 1945 – only one quarter of the daily calorific intake required for health and survival in an adult.
The starving population subsisted on mostly hard bread, small potatoes, sugar, and very little protein. Humanity’s evolutionary inheritance has given us the ability to survive long periods of malnutrition; but not without consequences. The body slows down to conserve energy and resources. It’s estimated that 18,000 people perished through starvation and issues relating to malnutrition.
Much of this ability to adapt is from epigenetic changes in the activities of our genes. The Hongerwinter study went on to discover that DNA changes brought on in adult life can be inherited by the next generations. The children born to Dutch famine survivors revealed just this.
Investigators from Harvard University obtained detailed health and birth records from this era, and as expected, babies born during the famine often had severe health issues. Those babies in the womb between the third and ninth month of the famine were born underweight. Surprisingly, babies growing in the mother during the first trimester towards the end of the Hongerwinter, on the cusp before food supplies returned – were actually born larger than average.
There were more surprises in store as these offspring were again studied after they reached adulthood. It was found that those born during the famine were highly prone to obesity compared to those who were born outside the famine. The study found a doubling of obese individuals among those in the womb in the second and third trimester during the famine.
They concluded that some kind of epigenetic memory was involved.
The Dutch study highlighted the life-long effects of prenatal experiences that cause changes in the genome.
I remember seeing a very moving documentary a few years ago about the beautiful and much loved actress Audrey Hepburn, about when she was a child growing up in the Netherlands during the famine. As an adult she suffered from anemia and bouts of clinical depression.
“No self is of itself alone…the ‘I’ is chained to ancestry by many factors.” ~ Erwin Schrodinger
When we are born in normal circumstances our metabolic systems are in perfect balance, but diet, lifestyle and environment affect our genes on a daily basis. Dr. Bruce Lipton asserts that our genes do not control our biology, but that WE control our genes with consciousness and life experiences.
This implies that we can affect what signals reach our genes by our mindset and lifestyle.
This is good news, as it means that we are not victims! Rather like a river, our genes are fluid, dynamic and responsive to everything we think and do.
What we eat, drink, how we exercise and the stress we endure are all things within our control to a large degree.
Your genes are not your destiny
I explained about the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in a previous post: What You Need to Know about the Most Influential Organ in Your Body.
The Human Epigenome Project (HEP) follows on from the HGP and the HMP, and is all about learning how to make our genes help us, (including our microbial genes which massively outnumber our human genes), assuming the Supergenome is a willing servant waiting for our instructions.
If the genome is the architect’s blueprint of life, the epigenome is the engineer, construction crew, and facilities manager all in one. Mastering the controls is our individual responsibility.
Each of us is incredibly fortunate that our bodies can run automatically with almost total perfection for decades at a time. But unless we participate in our own well-being, sending conscious messages to our own genes, by our intentions and actions, running on automatic isn’t enough.
Radical well-being requires conscious choices. When you make the right choices your genes will co-operate with whatever you want. On the other side of the coin genetic changes can be quite drastic when no one is in control.
The wisdom of cells
Another light bulb moment for me from the book, Super Genes is the observation that cells don’t push themselves beyond their limits. That is a trait of consciousness. A cell heeds the slightest sign of damage and rushes to repair it. A cell obeys the natural cycle of rest and activity, it embodies the deep understanding of life embedded in its DNA.
When human consciousness and environmental factors are added to the equation we can become disconnected from our body’s innate intelligence.
“All evolution is co-evolution.” ~ Stuart Kaufmann
As scientists discovered in the HMP, bacteria, (which outnumbers human cells 10 to 1), is fundamental to gene expression. There are more micro-organisms living in the G.I. tract than there are cells in our bodies. Collectively these symbiotic microbial communities, living inside us and on our skin, are termed the Microbiome.
The inner eco-system that constitutes the gut microbiome makes digestion possible.
Your birth is the start of your life and your microbiome
Our microbiome is seeded when we are born. Our gut is sterile in utero and gets its first exposure to bacteria from the birth canal and then through breastfeeding, (as milk contains important prebiotics to feed these essential microbes and build up the gut microbiome). The microbiome becomes stable around age 2-3 and is unique to each individual, like a genetic microbial fingerprint.
There are ramifications to lifelong health for babies that don’t benefit from either natural birth or breastfeeding, which potentially makes them more vulnerable to allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune diseases and childhood obesity, all of which are on the rise.
“In effect, a baby born by C-section is likely to miss out on receiving the special payload of the mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes. These microbes are supposed to be the first arrivals of the gut microbiome ‘colonisation party’. As we’ll see in the next chapter, a lack of exposure to them could impact the optimal training of the infant immune system.”
~ Toni Harman & Alex Wakeford (The Microbiome Effect).
The authors made an insightful documentary about how the human microbiome is seeded called: Microbirth.
In their brilliant book, SuperGenes, Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi paint a compelling picture of how everything we are affects everything we are and do. It is fascinating that every person is a biological encyclopedia, and every new generation writes a new chapter in human evolution.
They assert that evolution’s greatest triumph is not the complexity that has risen out of the primordial soup, but ‘memory’. Memory is what made life possible. Chopra and Tanzi go as far to say that the antibodies in our immune system contain the memory of all diseases confronted by the human race.
“Genetics tells us that any past experience, good or bad, is sticky, because it has taken place, using chemical bonds deep inside the cell, in the nucelus where DNA resides. In a molecule of salt, atoms of sodium and chlorine are tightly bound together. A lot depends on their remaining stuck, because if you poured out some salt and it separated into its components, the release of chlorine gas would be poisonous. Life is about the persistence of memory.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi
Identical twins – one on Earth, one in space
NASA used Captain Scott Kelly’s year in space to conduct tests between him and his identical twin brother, Captain Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. They compared their identical DNA to ascertain the impact of physiological changes on the human body in a zero gravity environment for a prolonged period of time.
The Twins Study did indeed reveal that Scott’s 340 days in space effected epigenetic changes, as preliminary findings showed that 7% of his altered gene expression was yet to return to normal.
Threats to well-being
Let’s face it, ultimately none of us are getting out of here alive, but the goal is to live as old and young as possible. It’s about quality of life. The major constant threats to well-being are illness and aging, a predisposition to certain diseases and genetic mutations.
“But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.”
~ Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution
The science of human empowerment
The top six categories to focus on for optimising your genetic destiny all involve the epigenome, microbiome and brain:
Optimal Health (a state in which all the boy’s systems are operating properly), can be achieved by being proactive in our attitude and habits relating to our well-being. As an elite health coach, my aim is to help people reach their optimal health, what I call elite health – which is the pinnacle of wellness – where age does not dictate ability.
The three main reasons we don’t have optimal health are diet, lifestyle and the environment.
Almost a thousand years before DNA revealed its first secret, the mystic Persian poet Rumi took the same journey. He looked over his shoulder to tell us where the road leads:
Motes of dust dancing in the light
That’s our dance too.
We don’t listen inside to hear the music-
The dance of life goes on,
And in the joy of the sun
Is hiding a God.
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes)
In my next post I’ll be covering nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle and environmental factors (especially toxicity), all a major influence on our body’s genetic switching centre.
We should collectively be asking ourselves, how much more vibrant and healthy can we be when we nurture and nourish the 90% of us that is microbial?
Before my life changing experience with a 21 day gut health programme I came to accept that feeling under par was my new normal. I came to accept that my weight gain was an inescapable part of having had four children. But now, in middle age, I am in the best shape of my life since my mid twenties in every respect. I now know what it feels like to have my inner eco-system working for me rather than against me.
This is why I am passionate about helping people re-balance and reset the powerhouse of their health – their gut microbiome. In fact I have turned into something of a gut geek!
If you have made it a goal to achieve better health and energy in 2019, then the gut is the best place to start.
“If there’s one thing to know about the human body; it’s this: the human body has a ringmaster. This ringmaster controls your digestion, your immunity, your brain, your weight, your health and even your happiness. This ringmaster is the gut.” ~ Nancy Mure