Have you ever blamed something on your genes? Perhaps you’ve said things like, “I can’t change that, it’s in my genes”. Now it’s true that we inherit our genes from our parents. However, once you understand epigenetics, you will realize that this does not mean that your health and your life is dictated by your genes.
Something else has to happen for your genes to be switched on. Epigenetics is all about the study of the other factors that control whether or not genes are switched on. This is known as gene expression in epigenetics.
In this article, I will explain how you have far more control over your genes than you think. Even if your parents had bad genes that made them more susceptible to certain diseases, it does not mean that this will affect you. Once you learn about epigenetics, you will realize that you are in charge of your health and life.
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Old Beliefs about Genetics
It was a common belief that people were born with a fixed genetic blueprint that determined their traits, behaviors, and health. According to that belief, we are all victims of our hereditary. We can’t influence our genes. Our life is very predetermined and we have very little control over our health.
Until recently, most social scientists, psychologists and other opinion makers also believed that our genes shape our habits and personalities. This means we have little control over our ability to change. This belief is now shifting.
Genetics certainly play an important part – in determining our body size, body shape, the color of our eyes, hair, and other physical factors.
DNA is More Fluid Than You Think
The fast-growing field of epigenetics has discovered that we can influence our genes in a big way. You can no longer blame your genetic makeup for your health, undesirable habits, unhappiness, or feeling stressed and anxious. Your DNA, which is the carrier of your genetic information, is far more fluid than what we previously thought. We used to consider it as a template. And a template is something that you cannot easily change. It’s now thought more like a script and a script is something that you can change.
Genes Can Be Turned Off and On
The word epi in the context of genetics means at, on, above, in addition to, or as well as your genetic makeup. Therefore, epigenetics is the study of how external forces that include your thoughts, behaviors, and life experiences can either turn on and off, or just leave alone, parts of your genetic makeup.
Epigenetic scientists are examining what makes genes express themselves – what turns them on and what silences them. By knowing this, we can influence their activity and dramatically reduce our chances of getting a disease that was previously thought of as genetic.
If your parents or your grandparents had cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, you could be worried that you might get it too. Epigenetics reveals that you can silence the genetic parts that could trigger the disease. Even if you have the cancer gene in your body, it has to be turned on for you to get cancer. And there are quite a lot of things that need to happen for that gene to switch on.
The Gene Switch Is in Our Control
Switching our genes on or off is mostly within our control. Events that happen in our life can change the way our genes operate. They don’t alter the genes you were born with, but they change your genetic activity. The latest research is saying that only 5% of gene mutations directly cause long-term illness or disease. The other 95% of genes linked to illness or disease are influenced by life factors. These life factors include diet, exercise, life experiences, beliefs, perceptions, chemicals, stress, and negative emotions.
Epigenetic scientists now find that meditation, mindfulness and cognitive therapy can modify epigenetic factors. Your perceptions and thoughts affect your brain chemistry. Your brain chemistry alters the chemistry of your blood. This then influences your cells and the expression of your genes. So, the way you perceive the world, the actions you take, and the life experiences that come from that, influence your genetic activity. In a nutshell, your mind controls your body.
All the positive thinking, affirmations, meditation, and other self-improvement work are helping both your mind and body. Your thoughts and perceptions affect your biology. They affect your body. And the great news is that this places you in the driver’s seat.
Childhood Experiences – Baby Rats Experiment
There is one area that seems to be outside of our control. This is our earlier life experiences. Past events, especially those from childhood, can play a significant part in our genetic activity.
An experiment with baby rats supported this claim. Some of these baby rats were very well looked after by their parents. They were licked and groomed regularly and made to feel loved. When those baby rats became adult rats, they functioned normally in the world.
Some other baby rats had parents that weren’t that good. They received the minimum amount of licking and grooming. When these rats grew up to be adults, they were more stressed than the rats that were better looked after.
So if our childhood experiences aren’t so great, we may be more stressed and anxious in adult life. However, there are lots of things we can do to work on stress and anxiety. Even if we feel there’s something that is slightly predisposed to us from our past, we can still do lots of things to change that.
Passing on Epigenetic Information – Cherry Blossoms Experiment
One very interesting question is whether you can pass on epigenetic information to your offspring. To answer this question, another experiment was done, this time with mice. They placed some mice in an environment where they could smell cherry blossoms. Every time they smelled cherry blossoms, they would get an electric shock.
Over time, these mice connected smelling cherry blossoms to receiving an electric shock. They developed a fear response to the cherry blossom smell regardless of whether they received an electric shock or not.
These mice then reproduced. They then exposed their offspring to the same cherry blossom smell, but with no electric shock. Immediately, these baby mice generated the same fear response. So just by smelling cherry blossoms, they experienced fear.
This research seems to prove that genetic information passes from parent to offspring. In this case, the fear response to cherry blossom. This may or may not apply to humans, but keep this in mind anyway, especially if you are a parent.
Epigenetics could also explain the placebo effect more clearly. When new drugs are being tested, some patients get a real pill with active ingredients that can help them with their condition. Other patients receive a placebo which is a sugar pill or a pill that contains no active ingredients.
Some people who take the placebo get some kind of physical benefit. And the reason is they believe they got the real drug. They believe it will work. That belief influences their brain chemistry and the chemistry in their body. It has a positive impact on their cells and the way genes express themselves. Sometimes just a belief that something can work, can bring real physical improvements in the body’s healing.
You can now see why learning about epigenetics is very important. I hope I helped you understand that you have more control over your health and your life than you previously thought. You are in the driver’s seat. You (not your genes) are responsible for your health.
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