A few years ago I did all the genetic tests I could get my hands on.
I had all this data on my genes, and I found it very interesting. I was convinced once I could interpret it all that I would get something useful out of it.
Then Dr. Tommy Wood gave this talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2019….
Turns out in a vast majority of cases individual genes play a very small role in our health outcomes compared to the lifestyle we live.
It is true that our genes can influence certain health outcomes, but your genes in no way set your destiny.
Turns out the saying, “You control your own destiny” is true when it comes to genetics as well.
Scientists have discovered that just because we may have a certain gene, does not always mean that the gene actually gets expressed, there is a lot more that goes into gene expression. One of the things that influences genetic expression is our lifestyle and environment, this is referred to as epigenetics.
Epigenetics literally means “on top of our genes”. You can think of epigenetics as a layer on top of your genes that can influence the way they are expressed. The fascinating thing about epigenetics is that it is influenced by the surrounding environment. While you may not be able to control your genes, you have a very strong influence on your environment, which in turn means you can influence the expression of your genes.
Here is a simple example of epigenetics that everyone is familiar with.
When you spend time out in the sun you will develop a tan. The sunlight (part of your body’s external environment) provides signals to your body which activate genes that produce melanin. Melanin causes your skin to get darker (aka you get a tan) and that in turn prevents you from getting a sunburn. Without the input of the sunlight, these genes would never be activated and your skin would never darken.
Here is another not so good example of epigenetics. We all know cigarettes are bad for our health in a number of ways. Turns out that part of the reason why cigarette are bad for us is that they turn on certain genes that lead to increased inflammation in the body and ultimately impacts whether we develop certain diseases .
A recent study also illuminates the role exercise can have on our epigenetics and why it might be so impactful for our overall health. In this study researchers recruited young untrained males and had them do 6 weeks of spinning on a bike at 70% of their max heart rate for 60 minutes 5 days a week. Before and after the training intervention researchers took muscle biopsies and analized what are called genetic “enhancers”.
Genetic enhancers act in a way that they can regulate gene expression. They found that after endurance exercise, the genetic enhancers from the muscle biopsies were altered. Turned out, these alterations in the enhancers caused them to modify the behavior of genres related to the coagulation system, cognitive performance, cardiovascular disease, and renal function and disease. In other words epigenetic changes from exercise can contribute to many of the health benefits we know exercise provides.
There are lots of environmental influences that can impact our epigenetics. The below diagram lists several of them.
It is no surprise when we look at the above diagram that many of the environmental factors that influence our epigenetics are the same as the pillars of ancestral health: diet, sleep, stress management, movement, exercise, and social connection. When we blame our health woes on our “genes” and toss our hands up in the air saying “there is nothing we can do about it” that might not be the case. In fact we can do something about it.
You may have genetics that predispose you to certain health conditions but those genes may not be activated because you eat a whole foods diet, move your body, get adequate sleep, relax, and spend quality time with others.
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- (2019, November 11). The role of cigarette smoke-induced epigenetic alterations in …. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://epigeneticsandchromatin.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13072-019-0311-8 ↑
- (n.d.). Epigenetic rewiring of skeletal muscle enhancers after exercise …. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212877821001356 ↑