Eating well and reducing stress can influence your DNA
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
A brief look at the emerging science of epigenetics, understanding how diet and stress can turn on or off disease genes
Unfortunately, stress and poor diet choices are often an unavoidable part of getting through the day. A few years ago, I was putting my own body under a huge amount of stress. This resulted in severe anxiety and unfortunately three almost back-to-back episodes of a horrible skin reaction across my entire torso. In a 30-something body, this was a huge red-flag and a clear warning that something needed to change.
I began to combat my problems through nutrition. It was on this journey that I was introduced to the term epigenetics. As I read into this emerging science, I began to appreciate just how deep an impact my diet and environment could have, even to the depths of my own DNA. Epigenetics explores the age old debate of nature versus nurture. Are we the way we are because of our inherited qualities, or are we a product of our environment and experiences? Turns out it is a bit of both.
Our amazing bodies are built from a unique code, a blueprint known as deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. DNA contains contains genes, some good and some bad. They generally tell our body how to look, grow and age. DNA is also partly responsible for our susceptibility and response to disease, and this is where epigenetics comes in; this relatively new field of study has suggested that genes are a bit like light switches, and we may have the ability to turn them on, or off. Now while this probably won't stop me from continuing to have my Grandad's nose or my Dad's ears, it does open us up to the opportunity that inherited diseases don't have to be our fate.
Here's an example - say you were unfortunately born with an active cancerous gene. It's switched on and beaming away inside you, just waiting to strike. Epigenetics suggests that having the gene is one thing, but it's not game over. If you take care of yourself, eat well and keep stress down, scientists believe that you can turn that gene off. This science is still in its early stages. Studies are taking place as we speak, trying to understand what’s going on and how we can take advantage of this amazing discovery. But imagine the potential.
Here's what we know so far. There are recorded studies which show that green tea can prevent anti-cancerous genes from being turned on. Not only that, yoga is linked with turning off a gene associated with autoimmune diseases, insulin resistance and cancer. It’s not just about that awesome stretch. An interesting study in 2013, reported that constant exposure to chronic stress, in particular fight or flight stress, changed the way genes activated in immune cells. Cells were fired up as if infection was imminent, but the infection wasn't really there. This led to inflammation genes being turned on, which increased the risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
The evidence is pretty compelling and certainly made me rethink how I manage stress and diet. Nature gives us a blueprint for life, but how we use it is our decision. We can nurture and switch on the genes we want on our side by reducing stress, and of course, eating well. But importantly in recognising this, we can lessen negative impact, keeping other unwanted genes turned off. Exactly which genes we have the ability to affect is still being defined, but it’s a pretty mind-blowing concept.
The thing is, it’s not just about you and me and our lives right now. Many of our genes are inherited, pieces of our past living in our present bodies. It is believed that this 'turning on and off of genes' is also inheritable, meaning that your parent’s and even grand-parent’s life choices have already affected you, good and bad.
Before you curse your Dad’s stressful career and Mum’s love of the odd tipple, hold on. Their habits may have given a loaded hand before you were even born, but as we have learnt, that isn't the end of it. The changes you make today can not only help rewrite past, they can also be passed down to your children and beyond.
Scientists are still pinpointing exactly which foods and how much stress has an impact on our DNA and genes. But the evidence is gathering. In a world of social media overload, work stress and money pressures, it has never been more important to eat well and know when you need a break. The thing to remember is, whether you were given a good or bad hand when you entered this world, that doesn’t mean you have to play it. Live mindfully, limit stress and nourish your body. You have the opportunity to make a switch and see everyone come out winning.