Writer: Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD
Insight into my DNA was made possible by personal genomics. Now, I am able to know whether I have cancer-causing genes or other alterations in my genes. You might be someone who adamantly refuses to learn about your genes and whether you are at risk for certain diseases. Avoiding information that threatens happiness or health is not abnormal and is sometimes referred to as information avoidance.
Perhaps no health problem causes as much anxiety as the threat of a heart attack or cancer. Knowing you are likely to have a heart attack or a cancer gene may cause feelings of panic and regret. This is perhaps partly due to the perceived finality of these diseases or how the media reports about cancer and its victims.
In reality, you should have more anxiety if you don’t take the time to learn about your genes and the diseases to which you may be prone. Why? Because in many instances, this knowledge may allow you to make lifestyle changes that could better control the activity of these defective genes. You may not be able to change your DNA, but you may be able to help control the activity of your genes.
Environmental influences like nutrition, cigarette smoke, and hormones have strong influences and affect how active our genes are and how they behave. The activity of “normal” genes may be regulated to express themselves in an abnormal way through tobacco smoke, pesticides, nutrition, and other agents. If you are exposed to tobacco smoke, it may drive a process that changes your gene functions, and those changes could be passed down from generation to generation. This may help explain why, for example, diabetes is hereditary in some families.
Similarly, these “defective” genes may be regulated to express themselves in a normal way. So, a gene is still a gene, and our environment determines how the genes behave. Chemical modifications may switch genes on or off with no change in the DNA sequence.
Take heart attacks as an example. As mentioned, genetics testing can reveal if you have a defective gene associated with a high risk for a heart attack (the representative gene is MTAP).
With this information, you can be proactive and reduce your risk by various activities such as the following:
• Eating a healthy diet consisting primarily of fresh foods that do not contain preservatives or flavor enhancers.
• Eating foods with omega 3 and other essential fatty acids.
• Avoiding smoking, including e-cigarettes, and consuming minimal alcohol.
• Engaging in appropriate exercise. Follow the recommendations outlined in peer-reviewed studies. Treat such studies as facts and not promotional information designed to sell any particular activity. Because the human body entirely comprises cells, their health and well-being is crucial. We are constantly gaining knowledge about the levels of exercise that cells need to remain healthy.
• Reducing stress through yoga, mindfulness, or another form of cognitive behavioral therapy.
• Being vigilant in treating existing conditions like hypertension and high cholesterol.
The ability to control the activity of our genes as opposed to changing the DNA itself is called epigenetics. It’s probably an unfamiliar term to most Americans, but it’s an important one. Normally, changes in gene function occur when there’s a change in DNA sequence. However, epigenetics is the study into how gene functions can change independently. According to the World Health Organization, the “epigenetic code does not affect the information contained in DNA sequence, but controls when and where this information is available to cells.”
What does all this mean?
Many researchers believe we may be able to use epigenetics to prevent diseases in the future, though the science behind it is limited right now. Epigenetics may also be relevant for therapy for cancers such as colon cancer. Experts also agree epigenetics can be used to explain “health disparities in the burden of various diseases among disadvantaged populations.”
But for now, more research is needed. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: “Effective prevention and treatment await a more complete understanding of the causes of human disease and the role that epigenetic modifications can play in improving the health of individuals and populations.”
What is apparent is that your genes are not a concrete blueprint for your current and future state of health. Other factors, including environment and lifestyle, may alter the way your genes express themselves. So, it is more important to know about your genes than to practice information avoidance.
Your DNA does not have to be your health destiny. Enjoy your healthy life!
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (pH), a revolutionary health care company that provides tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her new book, “Minerals—The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy” is available wherever books are sold. All proceeds go to The Bili Project Foundation, an organization devoted to reducing the incident and improve the outcome of Hepatobilary cancers, which are cancers of the liver, gallbladder, or bile ducts.