When people think about genes, they tend to apply the words “good” or “bad” to them. Depending on how your life is going, you might thank your genes or feel victimized by them.
Yet this kind of thinking seriously misrepresents how genes work.
Only about 5 percent of disease-related gene mutations are fully penetrant, the term geneticists apply when a gene directly causes a disorder. Otherwise, 95 percent of genes linked to disorders act as an influence. They can sway one way or another, depending on other factors.
In other words: Biology doesn’t dictate your destiny. You have many choices, because “other factors” include a vast range of influences, including diet, exercise, stress management, and emotional events.
These influences don’t change the genes you were born with, which remain the same all your life. Instead, what changes is genetic activity, meaning the hundreds of proteins, enzymes, and other chemicals that regulate the cells. As the cells thrive, so does the entire body, and so do you.
In our new book, Super Genes, we discuss how to make the best choices in six areas of your life: diet, stress, exercise, sleep, meditation, and emotions.
With our approach, we aim to overcome the chief problem with lifestyle changes: compliance. Millions of people have read all the information on positive lifestyle changes and resolve to carry them out — only to find after a while that they’ve lapsed back into their old habits.
So here, we give you a menu of easy choices in each of the six areas that affect your genes, asking that you stick with each small choice before you move on to more difficult ones:
Diet has assumed new importance, largely because of the microbiome that not only digests food but constitutes a vast genetic component of the body. Research is showing that toxicity in the microbiome — especially discharges that leak into the bloodstream — are a major cause of inflammation.
Here are a few easy ways to optimize your diet:
- Add foods with soluble fiber to your breakfast, like oatmeal, pulpy orange juice, bran cereal, bananas, or a fruit smoothie made from unpeeled fruits.
- Eat a side salad with lunch or dinner (preferably both).
- Consume probiotic foods once a day, like active yogurt, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi, to nourish the microbial population in your digestive tract.
- Eat fatty fish at least twice a week, like fresh salmon, mackerel, tuna, and canned or fresh sardines.
- For vegetarians, consider healthy protein sources such as soy, tempeh, and mycoprotein.
Stress disrupts the proper functioning of cells by introducing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These are naturally meant to be temporary, lasting only a few minutes when threat is sensed by the brain.
In modern life, however, low-level chronic stress leads to cellular distortions that researchers believe are engraved as epigenetic markers (changes in how genes are expressed), and these can be permanent or at least long-lasting. Here’s what you can do to help combat stress:
- Leave work on time at least three times a week.
- Avoid multitasking — deal with one thing at a time.
- Find a physical outlet to unwind from daily stress, such as yoga or jogging.
The most important factor in exercise isn’t its intensity but simply developing the habit of staying in motion.
The risk factors associated with a sedentary lifestyle, in terms of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular health, start at the genetic level. This also means that the benefits of exercise might start very early in a person’s life and need to be maintained through his or her entire lifespan.
- Get up and move around once an hour.
- Take up gardening, golf, or a similar activity that you actually enjoy.
- Work with light weights as you watch TV.
- Take a brisk walk after you eat dinner.
DNA controls bodily rhythms in dozens of ways. Our bodies don’t run on one clock but many, all built into the cells’ genetic programming. And more and more, research is showing that the master rhythm that sets all the others is sleep.
Without a good night’s sleep, brain activity and hormonal balances are quickly thrown off, and conditions that seem far removed from sleep, such as obesity, are worsened. In itself, sleep is also a major reducer of stress. Here’s how to ensure you’re getting the right sleep:
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Blackout shades are best, but if total darkness is impossible, wear a sleep mask.
- Make your bedroom as quiet as possible. If you can’t achieve perfect silence, wear earplugs.
- Make sure your bedroom is comfortably warm and draft-free.
- Take a warm bath before bedtime.
After four decades of research into the mind-body connection, the health benefits of meditation have been abundantly proven. The new frontier is genetic, and ongoing studies are demonstrating that meditation brings benefits right down to the cellular and genetic level.
We must realize that our bodies are as aware of what we are experiencing as we are, except that their awareness exists in terms of chemicals. Meditation increases the body’s awareness by bringing positive chemical activity at the genetic level.
If you’re not already meditating, here are a few easy ways to start:
- Take 10 minutes at lunchtime to sit alone with eyes closed.
- Learn a simple breath meditation to use for 10 minutes every morning and evening.
- Find a friend to meditate with.
Emotions are the most elusive aspect of the mind-body system to investigate, for two reasons. First, they are fleeting. Second, their chemical signature is extremely complex.
Extreme emotional upset leads to a holistic reaction in the body, because trillions of cells are eavesdropping on our everyday experience. Medical science cannot fine-tune such vast, complex interactions between brain and body, each of which has genetic implications in terms of chemical output and markers on the DNA through epigenetics. It’s up to each of us to find a path of healthy positive emotions ourselves.
Here’s what can help:
- Write down five specific activities that make you happy. On a daily basis, consciously do one of them.
- Express gratitude for one thing every day.
- Set a “good news only” policy at mealtimes.
- Spend more time with people who are happy and less time with people who aren’t.
As you adopt these simple habits, they reinforce your ability to adopt more, as well as move on to choices that might be more challenging, such as a vegetarian diet or more vigorous, regular exercise.
The whole point is to start a conscious conversation with your genes — that’s the breakthrough that will make a huge impact on your well-being for years to come.
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