It’s not uncommon to have some type of illness in our genetic lineage that is attributed to genetics: cancer, Alzheimers, heart illness, etc. Many of us have learned that these are generally hereditary conditions, which can leave us with a feeling of inevitability. However, this may not be completely true.
A common misperception of the body is that our physical fate is destined by our genetic makeup. ‘If I have the gene for cancer, I will most likely end up with cancer.’ Or, ‘if I have the DNA for Alzheimers, the future of my poor mind is indubitably doomed’. However, while our DNA does hold the blueprint for our entire genetic makeup, the expression of our DNA is most certainly not written in stone.
Scientists have recently discovered that while the double helix strands of DNA generally remain the same, there are small organic molecules that chemically attach themselves to the outsides of the strands that can alter the expression of the DNA molecules. These have the potential to turn a predisposition on or off. This mind-blowing science is referred to as epigenetics.
For example, there have been many cases of identical twins, with identical DNA makeup who have the gene for a disease. Yet, one of these genetically identical twins will manifest with the disease, and the other one will not. Wherein lies the difference? It is all about our body responding to the choices we have made and the environment that we live in.
Some of you might be thinking, “Uh Oh!!!”. Like me, perhaps you have made choices in your life that have made your outlook a little bit detrimental? Fortunately there is still hope for us.
Telomeres: Chronological Age vs. Biological Age
The human body has two different ages: a chronological age and a biological age. The chronological age refers to the actual time a human has been alive, while the biological age refers to how old that human’s body seems.
Experts consider telomeres — the protective ends of chromosomes — when calculating this age difference. Telomeres work to keep chromosome ends from deteriorating or fusing with a neighbouring chromosome, affecting how quickly cells age and die. So, basically, the older you grow, the shorter your telomeres are.
In a broad study, a hundred random people guessed the age of test subjects. To a fault they guessed the biological age, rather than the chronological age. This means that they guessed closer to the participant’s telomeres, rather than how old they actually are.
Five years down the road, they took pictures of the same people, and once again the public guessed the biological age of telomere lengths. Some of the participants had engaged in healthy lifestyles while in the 5-year waiting period. The most exciting part of this study is that the public’s estimates of the participants’ ages reflected the positive effect that a healthy lifestyle had on the telomere length!
Through the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, through both a healthy diet and regular exercise, we can maintain our telomere lengths and prolong the advent of serious illness. One study suggested that mindfulness-based stress reduction can even lengthen the telomere lengths. (1) Telomere shortening, or biological aging, is preventable, and even perhaps reversible.
This is just one example of an epigenetic mechanism. Ultimately, epigenetic processes occur at the interface between our environment and our genes. By cultivating a healthy environment outside of ourselves and within our bodies, we can impact the expression of our DNA. This is why working with lifestyle advice to cultivate a deeply healthy environment within yourself is key in long term preventative health care.
The Epigenetics of Chinese Medicine
The concept of epigenetics is mirrored by some of the theories in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In TCM we have the concept of Pre-Heaven endowment and the Post-Heaven compilation of resources.
The Pre-Heaven Essence is inherited from the mother and father at the moment of conception, and determines each person’s basic constitutional make-up, strength, vitality and individual uniqueness. It is likened to a person’s genetic blueprint.
The Post-Heaven Essence is refined and extracted from the food and drink consumed after birth, the air we breath, the way we process emotions and how we enjoy our lives. It is the summation of how our lifestyle impacts our body’s internal environment. This is similar to epigenetics.
We perceive that the health of the body is controlled by the interface between our Pre-Heaven endowment, and this Post-Heaven compilation of resources. Pathology arises surreptitiously from an imbalance between these two aspects of our body and manifests uniquely in each individual person, as no two humans have the same genetic makeup or set of lifestyle circumstances.
Through the intricate diagnosing practice of TCM, we can see the general direction that each person is heading. The constellation of subtle signs and symptoms that present in each body, conglomerate into various patterns through which we can perceive the relative health of the Post and Pre-Heaven Essence. (This is why our forms are so long and comprehensive – every detail matters!) Following the recommendations from a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner are an excellent way to have a preventative and deep rooted relationship with your health.
I invite you to break free from any preconceived notion that you are at the whim of your genetic fate, and grasp on to the fact that we do have a choice in this matter. Every day, when you choose to get out of your chair and exercise you are choosing to engage with the health of your DNA. Every day, when you choose to eat real whole foods instead of processed alternatives, you are choosing to engage in your destiny as a healthy human being. It is possible to steer our bodies into old age with our health intact.
For more information on how our preventative medicine can support your DNA health, book in for a free 15-minute consult.
(1) PMID: 24486564