Health: Heredity or choice?

Susan Dawson-Cook, M.S.

How often have you heard someone say in a defeated voice, “It’s in my genes,” when referring to diabetes, heart disease and/or carrying excess pounds? Research is starting to reveal lifestyle choices determine current gene expressions more than birth parents.

An article entitled Epigenetics and Food in the January 2016 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal outlines evidence that diet, physical activity and living environment affect gene expression more than original biology. “People can improve their lives through direct action and are not shackled by genetic determinism,” says author and exercise physiologist Teri Mosey.

Isn’t this exciting? Instead of resigning yourself to a frustrating life of chronic illness, you can reconstruct your lifestyle and your genes and transform into the healthy person you want to be. After birth, certain genes become active or dormant based on lifestyle. Every cell in the body regenerates after several years. Making wise choices when it comes to exercise, food choices and managing stress can and will completely alter your gene expression.

Eating a healthy diet is one of the easiest ways to improve your health. Scientists (Estellar, 2007; Jones and Baylin, 2007: Sawan et al., 2008) have collected substantial evidence showing that diseases such as cancer are associated with a “silencing” of genes that repair and suppress tumor growth.

A diet rich in rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, broccoli, blueberries, grapes, garlic) helps protect the body against oxidative stress and are rich in phytonutrients, which protect against disease. Vegetables and spices are also chock-full of health-inducing minerals such as B vitamins, selenium, manganese and zinc. So dish yourself up a big helping of kale, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus or beets! Buying a vegetable you’ve never tried before and conjuring up a fun way to add it to a salad or favorite recipe can spice up your diet.

Exercise is a second important component to your gene reconstruction program. Staying active will boost your energy level and improve health. Genetic dispositions for diabetes and obesity have been shown to melt away after just six months of regular activity (Rönn et al., 2013). Take a walk, join an exercise class or swim laps. Or try a few different activities until you find what you enjoy the most.

Chronic stress causes the same debilitating effects on gene expression as poor diet and inactivity. If you experience symptoms of stress such as interrupted sleep, poor concentration, depression, anxiety and/or headaches, you can benefit from a stress management strategy. Yoga, meditation, spiritual connection, spending time outdoors and journaling are some options for alleviating stress.

Are you ready to get started? Consider writing down your plans for lifestyle change. This will be new way of living, so taking these first steps might not be easy. But don’t give up. This is your opportunity to write off illness as a foregone conclusion, be proactive and start reaping the benefits of a life of health and vitality.