Within my practice and the Let Go & Grow program, I have the unique privilege to work with people who believe that change, and more importantly, growth, is not only possible but vital. They may have been in search mode for some time, but a belief in the more, a better experience drives them to search for solutions, that for many, are against the grain.
In this article, I seek to relay the inspiring new science of epigenetics and how our understanding of the exposome is reshaping health in the 21st century and confirming what so many of us have always known and what ancient culture has intuited and observed since the beginning of time. This shift in the tides of how we perceive the influential drivers of health has the ability to free you up and change your relationship with health, so that you can finally take your power back and make choices fueled with purpose and complete ownership.
As one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, said, “the only way out is through.”
For many years, it was generally believed that understanding our DNA was the most important code to break if we wanted to prevent disease from arising. Our DNA holds the genetic code, and it was thought to be the key to life. Now, we know that this paradigm is outdated and not necessarily true. We now know that our genes are not, in fact, our destiny or even the primary driver of health and well-being.
Recent research states that our internal and external environment is actually more influential in the determination of health outcomes and that all of our experiences impact our physiological and psychological well-being in a way that was not previously recognized by conventional, western based science. Paradoxically, the emerging new science of genetics has spurred more questions than answers and is actually beginning to prove that we have the power to manage and influence our DNA and genetic expression with everyday choices.
These new concepts are powerful because they restore agency and bring your health back into your hands. Winning!
Genetics in Recent History
The 20th century was considered to be the golden age of genetics. We discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) amplification method, and even the sequencing of the complete human genome.
While these advances greatly contributed to our understanding of genetics and genetic modification, they also created several, disempowering societal beliefs- such as, that our health is primarily controlled by our genes, leaving us bound to fate.
Cue pervasive feelings of apathy, resignation, powerlessness and defeat.
However, it didn’t take long for us to realize that this simply isn’t the case. In other words, we are coming, as a culture, into the awareness that we determine our health experience and our destiny.
Even the original scientists who had been actively working on the genome have acknowledged that genetics aren’t the end all be all to understanding the ins and outs of the mind and body. Craig Venter, chairman and CEO of J. Craig Venter Institute of Genetic Research, said, “We simply don’t have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to work.”
Problems with Classical Genetics
For the last century, we were so determined to blame our genes for our maladies that we almost entirely disregarded our power to choose and create health through the simple fundamentals. Some even went as far as to say that food was nothing more than caloric currency and that it didn’t matter what you ate if your genetics determined what diseases you would get anyways. (Brogan, K. 2015)
In strictly gene-based sciences, all environmental factors take a back-seat to genetics. This means that our mindset, diet, lifestyle, relationships and the environment in which we live would be an incapable driver of health and disease when compared to the human genome. What?!
However, when the human genome was fully sequenced, these sciences came to the abrupt realization that human beings don’t even have as many protein-coding genes as a worm. Ouch.
This realization showed that there’s a lot more (or less) going on with our dynamic system than we thought.
So, if our genes don’t solely make up our unique expression, then what does?
The Birth of Epigenetics
When established science runs into a wall or starts providing more questions than answers, a new branch of science typically emerges. Cue epigenetics- the next step in our genetic studies.
The prefix epi means above, and thus the word epigenetics implies what is above the genome. This branch of science explores everything beyond the gene and how our choices and experiences influence the expression of our genetic code.
Epigenetics has begun to help people understand that they are not necessarily gifted or cursed by their genes- that genes can even change over time. One of the most popular studies on the subject has shown that there can be significant differences in how a gene expresses itself over the course of years and even generations.
For example, breast cancer risk, in one study, among those who carried the mutated gene, BRCA, was around 24% before 1940. However, since this time, the risk of this gene expressing itself in the form of cancer has risen to 67%. (King, MC. et al 2003)
Another timely review stated that we now don’t even have the evidence to support the idea that mutated genes are directly linked to breast cancer. (Broek, 2015) There is most likely a correlation, but the genetic aspect of disease seems now to only account for 1-10% of the likelihood of the developing illness- leaving, at the very least, the other 90% to be accounted for by the exposome.
The exposome is an idea that was first suggested by Dr. Christopher Wild. In 2005, he proposed and defined the exposome: as the entirety of an individual’s non-genetic experiences in a lifetime and how these exposures relate to health.
An individual’s exposure begins before birth and includes a variety of sources, ranging from environmental to relational- for example, what we eat, do, think, the air that we inhale, the type of people that we meet, and the health of those we are close to. (Wild. C, 2005)
Basically, the exposome is the sum of every non-genetic, environmental factor and choice that a person experiences in their lifetime.
Components of the Exposome
The exposome is generally broken down into three distinct categories.
- The specific external environment includes the basic external conditions that can influence a person’s health, such as the food they eat, the activities they engage in, what they drink and breathe in, what products they use on their body, etc.
- Many components of the external environment occur during our childhood, so there’s not always a conscious choice that we can make to optimize it. These factors include whether or not we were breastfed, how our parents were when we were conceived, and the relationships we held with our parents.
- The general external environment includes the areas of our environment that we can’t dictate without relocating. This includes factors such as the weather and climate, whether we live in a city or in the country, the pollution from traffic and industry, the economic situation, and influences like social status, finances, and schooling.
- The internal environment is, in many cases, governed by our external environment. This includes all system based biological factors like detoxification, inflammation, hormonal balance and oxidation. (Vrijheid, M, 2014)
- The internal environment is governed by all of our choices, ranging from mindset to environment, as well as our genetics.
The exposome has trumped our previous understanding of genetics because it has helped us realize that there isn’t a code in our DNA that can predict the expression of our lives. While genes still play a role, the vast majority of our health occurs as a result of the exposome.
The “nature (genes) vs. nurture (exposome)” debate has been a hot topic for many years. Academic culture has always questioned the importance of the two specifically in regards to health outcomes.
Not only have we not decided on an answer, but we’ve come to realize that the whole argument is fallible. Dr. Randy Jirtle, one of the pioneers of epigenetics, commented on the topic, “The nature vs. nurture argument is rapidly proving to be irrelevant, because we’re finding that the two forces interact in highly specific ways that alter gene behavior.” (Duke Health, 2006)
As per usual, either- or has nothing on both- and, and Jirtle’s research has helped us to understand that there are a cascade of interactions that affect how genes are turned both on and off, and there are far fewer that actually mutate the gene itself. This works to disprove biological determinism, a scientific philosophy that suggests that our DNA is a template that we’re given from birth that ultimately determines who we are and what we’ll become.
This shift and these new concepts are powerful because they restore agency and bring your health back into your hands, where the genome can be seen as a palette where colors are present- but you are the artist with great influence over how the colors interact and are expressed and how the complete picture comes together.
Genetic Wealth and Momentum
Within the field of epigenetics, there are more important terms such as genetic wealth and genetic momentum that can become useful in our understanding. The term genetic wealth refers to the type and quality of the resources that your lineage came into contact with. For example, here the food that your parents, grandparents and great grandparents consumed becomes influential. If your grandparents and parents engaged in a nutrient dense diet, this would improve the quality of your genetic makeup. In modern day society, our genes can also be impacted by food like products that contain less nutrients and even more toxicants, which can deplete our genetic wealth.
Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the impact of these destructive choices and how they can deplete their genetic wealth and slow down the genetic momentum for their future offspring- in turn, yielding less healthy, more debilitated generations to come. (Shanahan, C. M. 2016.)
Incorporating the fundamental tools, such as the suggested mindset, diet and lifestyle intervention mentioned above, you can help to empower and improve your genetic wealth and genetic momentum at any age. This is the beauty of change and our resilient existence.
The Power of Belief & Its Influence on Genetic Expression
What many people call the placebo effect is much more than just “good luck shining upon people who have a good attitude.” It’s not a trick, and it’s not luck- it’s a very observable, very complex series of events that occur in your mind and body that can be garnered by your belief. (Brogan, K. 2015)
Placebo, or belief, is widely becoming recognized as one of the most important factors regarding health outcomes, such as in the field of illness, psychiatry, and surgery.
Dr. Candace Pert, who received credit for discovering the body’s opioid system, was among the first to disprove the old paradigm of duality, of separation between mind and body. She suggests that the mind is the body, and both interact with each other according to the status of the other.
One of her most mind boggling discoveries was that neuropeptides aren’t restricted to the brain. In fact, neuropeptides travel throughout the body and encode emotion in different tissues. We find that our cells are programmed to respond and behave in accordance with our emotional state. (Pert, CB. 1991)
This research proves that we’re not only susceptible to our environment but to our emotions and our psychological well-being as well. An idea that is been studied, observed and built into many other fields, such as Chinese medicine, for thousands and thousand of years.
Quantum physics is now just beginning to explore evidence that suggests collective experience- as in, experiences that have seemingly nothing to do with you- can actually lay a foundation for individual experiences and, thus, affect genetic expression. This becomes interesting when collective belief begins to shift out of a narrow, gene dependent model of medicine and into one based on ownership, agency and your power to choose your own health experience- but all of this and more is for another article.
Improving Your Gene-Scheme
Now that you know there is far more involved in how health is created, let’s look at the tried and true fundamentals that can influence and modify your genetic expression. The fundamentals are basic pillars that you can draw from time and time again such as mindset, diet and lifestyle factors along with optimal, whole system support through methods like holistic counseling and functional medicine. The comprehensive approach I recommend can be found within the Let Go & Grow program and personalized in my private practice for those interested.
Epigenetics as a Source of Purpose
Purpose may even be one of the most interesting contributions that epigenetics has to offer. The idea that our genes can be influenced by our power to choose, goes against the nihilistic perspective that so many in our society are prone to. We are not just biological beings wandering blindly on a rock in space. We have the capacity to change ourselves, the world, and better the lives of others around us and future generations to come.
Using a teleological perspective– a perspective which focuses on the purpose behind our choices and experiences- we gain some semblance of understanding as to why the human body and whole life experience is so infinitely complex yet simple. It’s said that the human body matches the blueprint of the universe, manifested into a single, sentient point of being. No wonder we can’t comprehend its entirety. It goes far beyond the limitations of the mind and into a realm of healing where more is possible.
Now that we know about the game changing science of epigenetics, it can inspire us to make healthy, empowered choices, which can in turn, improve our overall genetic capacity and whole life experience. Our genes are not the blueprint of our lives. They may give us a starting place, provide us with an outline, and help us to understand the innate strengths and weaknesses we were born with- but they are definitely not our destiny.
This lack of awareness around this simple truth may even be one of the current primary drivers of disease and reasons why our health as a society has suffered more than ever before- but just your awareness and open mind changes this.
How could we take ownership without this truth? What would be the point if we felt powerless and fated to a certain outcome?
As a culture, we constantly give up our agency and place it in the hands of faulty science, narrow minded establishment and concepts like the gene blame game. Science in it of itself is a journey of inquiry, not a set destination.
However, the tide is shifting- I can feel it, can you?
As we enter into this new model of awareness, let’s continue to remember to connect to what we know is true, to inquire with an open mind and look at our experiences with eye toward possibility. Because equipped with this knowledge, you can begin to create the kind of radiant health that can support the life you are here to live- but as always, it starts with you- choosing change.
For more information, support and a tried and true springboard that can help you address the fundamentals and put these principles into practice, you can check out the Let Go & Grow program. We would love to have you in there! This is the exact process I teach my patients and apply in my own life, and have seen time and time again become a catalyst for radiant health, freedom and a life lived true to you.
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Resources From Dr. Brooke Stuart / Let Go & Grow®
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Brogan, Kelly. (n.d.). The Game-Changing Science of Epigenetics. Retrieved from https://kellybroganmd.com/gamechanging-science
Brogan, K., Nogueira, K., Wight, S., Bennett, E., E., Young, T. (2017). Retrieved from DowntoEarthThinking.com
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Collins, FS. (2004). The case for a US prospective cohort study of genes and environment.
Dupont, C & Armant, R. & Brenner, C. (2009). Epigenetics: Definition, Mechanisms and Clinical Perspective. Retrieved from contentblossom.slack.com/messages/D9TSD6LQ4/convo/D9TSD6LQ4-1521759735.000152/.
Iyer, L. M., Burroughs, A. M., Anand, S., Souza, R. F., & Aravind, L. (n.d.). “Breast and ovarian cancer risks due to inherited mutations in BRCA1 andMate BRCA2.”
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Shanahan, C. M. (2016). Deep Nutrition: Why your genes need traditional food. S.l.: Flatiron Books.
Wild, C. P. (2005). Complementing the Genome with an “Exposome”: The Outstanding Challenge of Environmental Exposure Measurement in Molecular Epidemiology. Retrieved from http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/14/8/1847.full