If you think genetic predisposition means certain conditions are inevitable, think again. Far from being at the mercy of your genes, you can affect which ones are turned on and off—not just in yourself but in your children and grandchildren—through lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, and stress management. The ever-expanding field of epigenetics, the study of how chemical and environmental factors impact our genetic health, has revealed many ways in which we can influence our genes. One study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene.
Research has also shown exercise can cause certain stem cells to differentiate into bone and blood cells instead of fat cells. In another experiment where male mice were taught through electric shock to fear the smell of fruit, not only did the mice grow extra neurons in their noses and brains to heighten their sensitivity to the scent, their babies were born fearing the smell and with the same extra neurons. By instilling fear in the father mice, scientists altered the way genetic code instructions were translated, and the baby mice inherited a trait learned by their parents through experience. The genetic sequence itself doesn’t change, but epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generation.
And if you’ve heard the term “methylation” tossed around lately, it’s because this biochemical process of adding (or subtracting, also known as demethylation) a methyl group to DNA can act as an on/off switch for genes, and it may happen in response to environmental factors. A study of people with stomach cancer showed participants could affect methylation of an important gene by drinking green tea and eating cruciferous vegetables. The upshot of all this science? The power to control your genetic health is, to an extent, in your hands if you’re willing to be proactive about lifestyle changes like eating well, exercising, and managing stress. Just because your grandfather and father suffered a certain fate doesn’t mean you will, too.
I will be writing much more on epigenetics in posts to come. Consider this a quick intro, because our ability to turn on and off genes is one of the most exciting and relevant discoveries there has ever been.
Wondering what others areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.