Everybody knows that we should eat healthily, stop smoking, and exercise regularly. But how much good can those habits really do? It turns out that the answer may lie in the theory of epigenetics.
Wikipedia defines epigenetics to be "the changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA." Simply put, it's the idea that external factors, other than your individual DNA, can cause changes to what genes get turned on and off. "Our genes, not the whole story" in US News & World Report (February, 2010) explores this new area of research.
The article mentions a pilot study led by Dean Ornish that found that 30 men with prostate cancer were able to change lower their prostate-specific antigen scores and the activity of their tumors with intensive lifestyle changes, such as exercising 30 minutes daily, doing yoga or meditating for an hour daily, boosting their social support networks, and eating a low-fat diet based primarily on fruits, vegetables, beans, and soy protein.
Furthermore, the article cites stress as one of the factors that can change gene expression, for the worse. According to Moshe Szyf, an epigenetics researcher and profession at McGill University in Montreal, stress hormones "are pervasive...traveling to every organ and tissue" which can ultimately change actual genes that help us deal with stress.
This article excites me. It validates my belief that we have more control over who we are than we think. As Ornish states, "our genes are a predisposition, but our genes are not our fate." Family history may be strong for cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, or Parkinson's, or disease XYZ, but we do have the power to change or at least postpone its onset by developing good living habits and learning how to deal with stress (short and long term ones). Eating adequate fruits and vegetables and skipping sodas does matter; not smoking does matter; exercising regularly does matter - all in ways we may not be able to see. But our bodies can most certainly feel it. And in the long run, that is what matters the most.
For some education videos on epigenetics, check out University of Utah's site.
Source: Baldauf, Sarah. "Our genes, not the whole story." US News & World Report Feb. 2010: 24-26.
Ornish D, et al. Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2008;105:8369-74.