If you have a family history of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s or something as simple as bad eyesight are you destined to the same fate? Or does your lifestyle help you reduce your chances or prevent genetic destiny?
Are Your Genes Your Destiny?
The short answer: No. Or more specifically: Not really. Or as I often like to put it: It depends…
Genes control much about our development and experience over a lifespan. There are, without question, a few things that we inherit from our parents that are predetermined and set in stone. However, a big question has arisen around nearly everything else in our lives and how much control we might have over things that were once considered unchangeable, much of which is now being studied in the world of health.
What role does genetics play in health?
For the longest time, people have thought that one’s genes are their destiny. We, in essence, are stuck with the traits that are passed down from our parents. Usually a mix of some good and some bad, but our genetic heritage is something we can’t necessarily change. This genetic blueprint determines how our bodies are built, grow and react to the environment. Everything from eye color to height and weight, strength, lifespan, disease risk, temperament, attitude and just about anything else we can think of was thought to be programmed at birth.
After quite some time it became pretty evident that there was more to it than just simplistic genes handed down from one generation to the next. The environment seemed to play a role in how people developed and it often went against what genetics would have predicted or programmed, sometimes affecting remarkable changes counter to the expected genetic program. The debate soon began. What’s more important, nature or nurture? Are we a product of our genetics or our environment? Or both?
Not surprisingly the answer, as far as we can tell, is both play a role but how much depends on the person.
Genetics & Epigenetics
There are two major concepts that determine how we develop and evolve as humans: genetics and epigenetics.
Genetics (i.e. “nature”) refers to the actual genes you inherit that establish your physical and mental potential. This program, when stimulated and nourished, creates the body as we know it and sets our foundation. But it isn’t set in stone. What we now understand is that genes are more rough guidelines or a starting place that is formed more specifically by cues from the environment that trigger the genes to turn on/off and express those traits.
Epigenetics (“nurture”) refers to this system of genetic expression, i.e. whether those genes get turned on or off. This “above the genome” process is the real life application of your inherited potential, meaning that your destiny is the combination of both your genes and the environment, not one or the other. Epigenetics is what enables humans to adapt to their environment and circumstances quickly and efficiently. When stimulated to store calories more rapidly (eg famine), the genes that control thrifty metabolism turn on. If you have many thrifty metabolic genes from your heritage then this environmental trigger has a big impact and you gain weight easily. If you don’t inherit the obesity/diabetic genes then you will still make changes but they will be minor or in other adaptive systems.
Almost everything else in the body follows a similar paradigm. We might have genes that encourage certain diseases, strengths or weaknesses but it’s our behavior that tells those genes to act or not. Ultimately, although we can’t control everything, we have an extreme amount of control over how our genetic destiny plays out.
This is how I find it easiest to conceptualize genetic destiny and control…
The Electrical Panel
You inherit genes, similar to an electrical panel with lots of switches that control things throughout your house. Your life experience is what turns on or off those switches that result in different things happening throughout the house. We each inherit similar but unique electrical panels depending upon our “house” and it’s needs. Throughout our lives we decide when and which switches to turn on/off.
What turns these switches on and off? Nutrition, activity, stress exposure, sun exposure, sleep, toxin load and many other things all serve as triggers to flip genes on or off. Anything we encounter or experience that our bodies have to live through or adapt to serves as potential stimuli for epigenetic change.
Someone with strong genes and a good epigenetic environment early in life is almost invincible. Someone with weak genes needs nearly everything in his/her favor to survive and do so well.
Most of us lie in the middle with an average human gene pool but poor diet, terrible stress, broken sleep and little exercise will encourage the genes that favor health and longevity to remain dormant and the ones that favor disease to activate. That same genetic base can be activated positively if the lifestyle promotes it. The trick is the sooner in life and the more powerfully the good gene expression is triggered the better off the person will be. Wait too long and it’s much more difficult to turn the tide completely but at almost every moment of life we can influence good gene expression. It’s never too late, even to change your genes.
The bottom line is this: lifestyle can’t change your base materials but it gives you the opportunity to make the most with what you got.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. A couple other ways to look at it…
Genes are the blueprints and building materials. Epigenetics (lifestyle) is the builder, designer and remodeler.
Genes are the sheet music. Lifestyle is the pianist.
Genes are the hardware, lifestyle is the software installed and the user.
P.P.S. Although this was a very simplistic review of genes and epigenetics there’s an incredible world of intricate evolution and adaptation that happens in our human world. Just as an example- what we go through will change our genes to the point that it effects not only our children but our grandchildren as well. Imagine that you can hinder your daughter’s eyesight by not eating enough vitamin A or encourage your grandson’s anxiety by having stress rule your world. When you start wrapping your head around the implications of that you’ll start to see how far in over our head when it comes to fully understanding all this…
[…] and nurture determines health. We never know quite how much of each determines all the different aspects of life but our best bet is to learn from our genes and live […]