Epigenetics and Your Family History
I am 53 years young. My mom and dad are both alive and well. That makes me lucky.
As Mother’s Day and Father’s Day season approaches, I wanted to share with you some latest thinking about a topic most of us take for granted: the concept in medicine of “family history”.
If you have “good genes”, then that means you have longevity and low rates of illness among your family members. If you have “bad genes” you might not be so lucky with your own health.
Well, I have good news: epigenetics has arrived on the medical scene.
Epigenetics refers to the environmental influences on how a gene gets expressed.
Compare your genes to a blueprint for a house.
If you lay a blueprint in the middle of an empty field, a house will not suddenly spring up out of nowhere.
In fact, the house will only come into existence with the combination of many factors: the contractor, the materials used, the weather, and also the blueprint.
It is currently estimated that only about a third of a particular health condition is a result of underlying genetics; two-thirds of that condition arises from factors we can control – environment, nutrition, external stress.
For example, many people say, “I have a family history of heart disease.”
While of course, you share genetics with your parents and other relatives, you also share a history of living in similar areas, eating similar foods, and engaging (or not) in similar levels of physical activity.
In the case of heart disease, the number one killer of American men and women, the list of factors we can control keeps growing. We can eat healthier diets (as opposed to the “standard American diet” – a.k.a. the S.A.D. diet), we can increase our physical activity, and we can strive to lower the stress in our lives.
In another example, we now know that blood sugar plays a major role in the development of dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is now being referred to as “Type 3 diabetes”. By improving your nutrition and eating less sugar, you can help keep your brain sharp, even though other members of your family might be experiencing cognitive decline.
Yes, even cancer is now known to have preventable causes, such as the HPV virus causing cervical cancer (for which there is a vaccine), and synthetic progestins causing a small increase in the risk of breast cancer (for which bioidentical alternatives exist that do not raise breast cancer risk).
There is also now evidence that higher blood sugar is connected to the development of cancer, and that vitamin D has direct cancer-fighting abilities. (More reasons to eat less sugar and take Vitamin D!)
The bottom line: Epigenetics is more important than genetics
When it comes to your genetic blueprint, first I recommend picking good parents.
But don’t worry – your genes only determine a third of your health outcomes – the rest comes down to choices that are under your control.