Updated: Jan 18, 2022
I want to talk about epigenetics today. (And yes, I am very fun at parties. Thanks for asking.)
Epigenetics is the study of how your environment and experiences change how your genes are expressed. Before we dive into it, though, let’s back up and talk about the first theory of genes. We used to think that genes were inherited directly from our parents and ran every aspect of our physiology. These genes gave instructions for how every single process in your body was to work through the use of proteins. The genes would instruct the proteins what to do and the proteins would run around carrying those messages to the body. A related theory called “genetic determinism” also suggested that there were certain things in life you had no control over because your genes ran the show. If your genes predisposed you to cancer or depression then you were very likely to experience it at some point and there was little you could do. Genes could not be changed.
Based on these theories, scientists set out in 1990 to map the human genome and figure out how these genes really worked. They looked at all the myriad processes and proteins in the body and estimated they would need to find at least 120,000 genes to run everything. By the time they finished in 2003 they had discovered that there were only 20,00-25,000 protein-coding genes in human DNA. That’s about 20% of what they expected. (There appears to be other genes in human DNA that carry other functions, some of which we understand and some we don’t, but none of these appear to give specific instructions to proteins to carry out the body’s functions.) "What the heck?" the scientists must have thought. Clearly the gene theory they had started with had some major holes.
Since then, gene theory and research have shown that human DNA is much more complicated than we originally imagined. I’m not going to pretend to know the latest research, because they are learning more all the time, but I will fill you in on some of the basics. We do know that some genes code for things that can’t be changed such as your eye color, height, skin tone, and more. However, some genes can change the codes they give to proteins in order to change your physiology. We now know that these genes have a variety of instructions they can send out to the body. When one of those possible instructions is chosen, it is called gene expression. What determines how genes are expressed? Factors such as stress, nutrition, safety, and more. So we now know that gene expression actually depends on outside influences, not internal, immutable instructions.
This study of epigenetics has fully debunked the idea of genetic determinism and has made it clear that how our genes work can be influenced by our environment, experiences, emotions, and more. Sometimes these gene expressions can change within minutes. Other expression takes longer. Particular gene expression can even be passed on through generations. This is exciting because it first tells us that our genes do not determine our whole life. We can create an environment that contributes to the best expression of our genes. Second, it provides a genetic theory for how trauma can be passed through families while also suggesting that the genetic effects of trauma can be reversed. (I talk more about generational trauma here.)
So, the exciting news behind this all is that you are not simply a product of your genes. That history of weight, depression, suicide, PTSD, cancer, or other things in your family do not fully determine your destiny. You can do things specifically to break family patterns and change the expression of your genes. Just because the past three generations of men in your family have had back pain does not mean you have to. Just because your mom and grandmom had debilitating PMS for their whole lives does not mean you have to. Just because you have a family history of depression from trauma and abuse does not mean that you have to repeat it again in your own life. You have the power to change these things.
Obviously, scientists are still trying to figure out how all this works and what exactly helps genes express one way or another. However, we do know some of the things that create the worst possible expression of our genes: stress, junk food, sedentary lifestyle, chemicals, abuse, isolation, and more. I’m pretty sure you can guess what triggers genes to express their best characteristics: rest, relaxation, getting outside, exercise, laughing, friends, safety, emotional health, etc.
Seems pretty simple right? Make healthy choices in life and you are creating an environment in which your genes can find their best possible expression. But what about those who have grown up with abuse, or escaped from a war-torn part of the world, or have inherited trauma from generations before them? The great news is that they are also able to actively work toward healing the past in order to create a present environment that encourages the best possible gene expression in their bodies. That’s why epigenetics is so exciting. It means that every day is another chance to reset the genetic instructions to create a better future outcome.
Quite a lot of people from all walks of life are jumping onto this idea and discovering how important our intentions are to drive our physical health and well-being. Authors and researchers such as Dawson Church, Joe Dispenza, and the people at HeartMath have been working on this idea of using your mind to create physical change. I’m sure they all recommend the suggestions above (eat well, exercise, etc.) but they focus on meditation and the practice of loving yourself as a powerful influence on your genes. You can read their work for more information on this, but I want to suggest the practice of Metta meditation as a simple place to start.
Metta meditation comes from the Buddhist tradition and is often referred to as the practice of loving-kindness. There are variations on the practice, but essentially it revolves around sending loving-kindness to yourself and then to others. Traditionally meditation is used as a path toward enlightenment or higher awareness, and it can certainly still be that for you. However, you can also use it intentionally as a path toward the best physical expression of your genes. So, Metta can be a practice that encompasses the health of your body, mind, and spirit at the same time.
Metta meditation is easy and I’m not going to spend time spelling it out for you here because you can find scads of instructions on the web. If you want a guided meditation, you can check out YouTube and find thousands of videos that will help you along. If you are not experienced with meditation, pick a shorter video and give it a try. Even five minutes of Metta can leave you feeling relaxed and more connected with everyone around you.
All Metta meditation involves the repetition of various phrases that focus the feeling of loving-kindness in your heart toward yourself and others. Here are some common phrases: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease. Phrases can vary as can the exact format of the meditation. Any meditation is excellent for reducing stress, creating a sense of safety, etc., but Metta is specifically focused on sending love to yourself (the person many of us have a hard time loving) and well as others. The idea is that you cannot fully love others if you cannot love yourself first. In the context of this epigenetic discussion, I would suggest that your intention while saying Metta for yourself is to send these thoughts of loving-kindness to your DNA and genes themselves along with your mind and soul. In this you acknowledge the many ways your genes work for you every day and you wish them to be the healthiest they can be. It’s a very slight twist on traditional Metta, but from reading the work of others, that small intentional addition can create change over time.
So put together cutting-edge ideas of how our genes function along with ancient meditative practice and we have yet another way we can actively heal our past to create health and well-being in our present. We can reach for enlightenment while also creating the best possible environment for our physical body to flourish. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been dealt a bad genetic hand, think again. Change might be easier than you think.
May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.