Imagine if you possessed the power to turn on and off switches inside your genes that affect health. Well, I will let you in on a remarkable fact: You have the power to turn some of these disease switches on and off. To understand how you can do this, we need to turn to epigenetics. This term refers to the factors that influence the expression of your genes’ instructions, rather than the genes themselves.
epi·ge·net·ic \ˌe-pə-jə-ˈne-tik\ adjective: The Greek word “epi,” means over or outside of, and genetics. It refers to factors that influence gene expression, independent of the genes themselves.
Let’s begin with some basics. You inherit 23 chromosomes from your father and 23 from your mother. These genes are formed from DNA, and have influence on everything from your height to your eye color, whether you can tolerate milk products, cancer risk, chances of heart attack, and even your intelligence.
Many of us understand the genes to be fixed, and not changeable. You may be surprised that the messages sent by your genes can be modified: While we can’t change our genes, we can change the way it expresses itself. To put it simply, we can turn good genes on and bad genes off. Let’s look at favorite example that I often share with my patients in the clinic.
Dr. Dean Ornish had a hunch that a healthy lifestyle habits could influence gene expression among men with prostate cancer. Here’s what he did to figure out whether lifestyle could change gene expression: He examined 31 men with low-grade prostate cancer who had chosen to avoid traditional treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy. Dr. Ornish asked the men to do the following four things for 3 months:
- Eat a healthy, plant-based diet
- Exercise for 30 minutes, 6 days per week
- Practice stress management techniques
- Attend weekly support groups
The research subjects had genetic testing before the study began (and again when it ended). The results are impressive: The men lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and blood lipids, improved their blood sugar levels, and had significant epigenetic changes. Over 500 genes were altered, including 453 disease-promoting genes that were active before the study and became inactive after the study, and 48 cancer-fighting genes that had been inactive, but became active following the lifestyle interventions. That these improvements occurred after only 3 months of change is stunning.
I’m Dr. Michael Hunter. And I am off for a 30 minute brisk walk!