Popular understanding about genetics has it be known that you get what you get. Like continental drift, those twisted strands of genetic material may change imperceptibly over time but are ultimately fixed for life. Much like the pages in a novel, your story comes pre-written.
This view is what led to a year’s long project in which the human genetic code was revealed. This information should have unraveled all of the mysteries of human health, vitality and life expectancy, but it did not. It turns out there are many more subtle influences on genetic expression. Genes are not carved in stone, but are rather a responsive foundation that reacts to all environmental factors. Your diet, hydration, sunlight exposure, movement level and even feelings and stresses are interpreted by your DNA. Certain sections of DNA can turn on and off based on these interactions. Where we used to see genes as changing slowly over generations, it is much more likely that they change daily.
This interaction between genes and environmental exposures is referred to as epigenetics. From the epigenetic viewpoint, we have far more control over our genetic expression than was once thought possible. We exercise that power through daily choices and priorities. There are limitations, of course. An adult can certainly not make herself or himself taller by optimizing the quality of drinking water, but individuals can have a significantly positive impact on their health outcomes and risk of disease.
The daily choices we make that affect our health and DNA expression extend far beyond us as individuals. The epigenetic changes that occur in one generation can actually be passed down to the next generation. This means that parents who are experiencing lifestyle-related poor health can have children whose baseline health level is even lower than that of their parents. Evidence shows that those factors affect our grandchildren as well. Luckily, positive health choices are similarly passed on. It works the same way in the reverse direction of our family tree. We either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of the lifestyle choices made as far back as our grandparents.
Optimizing epigenetic changes is important for your own health, as well as for the health of the generations that will come after you. These begin at conception and continue for life. If you have not yet had children – but plan to – you are at a place of immense power. Address your health issues now to maximize the genetic wealth you will pass on to your children. If you have already had children, it is not too late to start making the best possible choices. These choices will not only help your children to experience better health and wellness themselves, but also to learn strategies for keeping their own children healthy.
Here are Some of the Top Priorities:
- Eat the best foods possible. Just because you did “fine” with toaster pastries as a kid does not mean your own children will fare as well. The effects of processed, nutrient-poor foods compound through generations. Eat a wide variety of whole plant and animal foods and serve them to your family. If you are not already involved in hunting, fishing, or gathering wild foods, start! You get the added benefit of combining the health promoting elements of nature exposure, movement, and community with the best nutritional choices.
- Drink filtered water. Tap water has many chemical additives and bottled water is often the same, just dressed up fancy. Buy the best filter that is affordable for you, such as reverse osmosis. Even a counter-top pitcher filter is probably better than nothing. Get most of your hydration from pure water. Avoid trying to get your ounces from other beverages like milk, juice, soda, or coffee. Plain water is best.
- Avoid chemicals and toxins. This can be a truly overwhelming task as you become aware of the myriad toxins you face every day. Choose one change to make and then next month another. Beauty and cleaning products, processed food additives, automobile exhaust, unnecessary pharmaceuticals, plastics and cigarette smoke are good considerations when trying to reduce or eliminate your toxic exposure.
- Manage stress. One of the most fascinating aspects of epigenetics – in my view – is the discovery that the effects of stress and trauma are multigenerational. Poverty, neglect and abuse leave marks on DNA that can not only impact an individual for life, but be passed on to children. While these kinds of changes are documented and observable, it is reasonable that the accumulation of smaller, frequent stresses would have a similar result. If you are a trauma victim, seeking counseling or therapy may be a very smart move. If you experience high levels of stress from a demanding job or life situation, find an outlet and/or begin practicing breathing exercises, meditation or yoga. Practice mindfulness and try to assume a positive, optimistic outlook.
Making these changes a priority can have wide-reaching and long-lasting effects for your own genetics and the genes of those who will come after you. As Mark Sisson says,
“There are multiple future possible versions of you. It’s up to you to decide which version you will become.”
Editor’s Note: Sara Kennedy is a certified nutritional therapy consultant. She is the owner of Renegade Wellness found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/paleoalaska. Reach her online at www.thriveak.com.