You likely think your DNA, your Genes, are a code. A code that is simply read by your body and this results in 'you'. That is what I was taught in school. When you were conceived, a new code was made. The cycle starts again. The slate is wiped clean and you began to form into the person you know today.
No. This is only part of the story.
The new field of biology called Epigenetics, has blown apart the conventional thinking of scientists worldwide. Epigenetic's is the study of how environmental factors switch genes on and off. It thus affects how cells express those genes.
Think of the DNA in your cells as a script. A wonderfully complex and rich script, that can be interpreted many ways. Acted out and recited in a plethora of different versions.
As Nessa Carey says, in her book 'The Epigenetics Revolution',
"Think Romeo and Juliet . In 1938 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later, Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both used Shakespere's script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes."
The implications of this are huge and far reaching.
You have an element of direct control over your Genes, because as a human, you have the unique ability to control your environment.
You decide what you eat. You can move or not move. You can manage your sleep time and therefore your circadian rhythm. You can control hot and cold exposure, sun exposure, stress levels and exposure to environmental toxins.
Don't assume either, that the influences of your life are forgotten when your children are conceived and a new unique genetic code is created. Life is rarely that simple. Evolution flows through the generations.
Your lifestyle, and its influences on your genes, are passed on to your children.
The way you live your life directly influences which genes are activated and 'read'. This information is heritable.
Epigenetics started to become clear in World War Two, with the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944. By the time proper food supplies reached the Netherlands in the spring, over 20,000 people had died from starvation and exposure. What was unique about this situation, was the fact that the well organised Dutch healthcare system was able to monitor the health of this population. Not just for the lifetime of the sufferers, but their children's lifetime, and then their children's children. Amazingly, generations on, this population suffered health problems because of the plight of their grandparents.
Since then, the mechanisms that make this possible have been discovered, and the interest of scientific minds piqued.
Amazingly, it seems humans have known this intuitively for eons. Many aboriginal cultures have purification rituals for couples prior to conception.
Consider just a few of the recent study findings on Epigenetics.
Obese fathers produce sperm with heritable traits that can predispose their children to be obese. (1)
Interestingly, in a pair of identical twins (monozygotic - their Genes are identical) the incidence of Multiple Sclerosis in only one of the pair has been attributed to epigenetic changes.(2)
Chronic stress influences expression of around 2000 genes, causing functional changes in the brain that can last long after the stressor has ended. (3)
An increased link has been seen between disturbance of the body's 24 hour natural circadian rhythm and tumour development, likely due to epigenetic mechanisms. (4)
We could look at journal extracts like this all day. Ultimately, the scientific community will say they need more studies and research to make certain any conclusions.
You don't have the next few decades to wait whilst scientists make up their minds.
The prescription will be broadly the same now as it is then.
So what can Men influence in their environment that will have obvious epigenetic consequences for gene expression?
Sleep (and light exposure)
We have already started to examine the first two points. Stress, Sleep and circadian rhythms is a huge topic that we will delve into soon.
Biome restoration is another ground breaking area that science is only really now uncovering. Stay connected for some BIG posts on this.
But for now, the take home points of this introduction into the fascinating topic of Epigenetics are as follows.
Some of your Genes are hard wired and will be expressed no matter what. However, you can influence a significant amount of your Genome by modifying your environment. Logic dictates, that for optimum outcomes, these will preferably be consistent environmental modifications over long periods of time. Further, many of these gene expressions can be passed on to your children.
This is the ultimate confirmation of your choice to walk a different path from that of the 'normal' Man.
No matter what hand you have been dealt, the way you play that hand decides its out come.
So what are you going to do? Resign yourself to 'fate'? Find some excuse that its because of your genes? Or change how you live to be the best you can be?
Your DNA doesn't have to be your destiny!
Leave a comment and as always…
1. Donkin et al., Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Drive Epigenetic Variation of Spermatozoa in Humans, Cell Metabolism (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2015.11.004
2. Handunnetthi, Lahiru, Adam Handel, and Sreeram V. Ramagopalan. Contribution of Genetic, Epigenetic and Transcriptomic Differences to Twin Discordance in Multiple Sclerosis. Ebsco Host. Psyc Info, 2010. Web. PMID 20819009doi:10.1586/ern.10.116
3. Stankiewicz et al (2013) Epigenetics of Stress Adaptions in the Brain, Brain research bulletin (98) 76-92
4. Masri S et al (2015) Circadian Clocks, Epigenetics and Cancer, Curr Opin Oncol, Jan 2015 27 (1) 50-56