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1st Jan


Epigenetics: How Environmental Factors Can Affect Genetic Expression and Our Health

First, I want to wish everyone a very Happy New Year! Time now to get some new information out, and hopefully help you stay motivated to take good care of yourself.

In a recent National Geographic magazine issue, Bill Sullivan wrote a piece with the heading “Why You Like What You Like”. Referring to various research, he concluded that our genetic makeup drives every action and personality trait, shaping who we are. As specific examples, he mentioned the 25% of people who hate bitter tasting vegetables such as broccoli, because of variations in genes that build our taste bud receptors, making these foods taste revoltingly bitter to them. He also referred to research, which indicate that our DNA affects who we are attracted to, and choose as life partners, and even our political orientation.

However, he acknowledged, that our DNA can be modified by environmental factors in many ways, which leads us to epigenetics.

Andrea Polli, and others, in a recent issue of JOSPT, discussed how understanding epigenetics can improve health care. Epigenetics is a new science that studies how chemical changes made to DNA, or proteins that interact with DNA, can affect gene activity. This is a gene-environment interaction at the molecular level.

Every cell has the same genetic code, or DNA sequence. But highly regulated epigenetic mechanisms allow some genes to be expressed, and others to be silenced, for different groups of cells. The authors compared the genome to a piano, and the full sets of keys as DNA, and epigenetics determines which keys are played.

We start with a certain genetic predisposition. The epigenetic mechanisms involve the effect on the DNA of environmental factors such as exposure to toxic elements and drugs/medications, and of lifestyle factors such as life stress (in particular early in life), smoking/alcohol, physical activity and diet.

This can all produce systemic responses such as cortisol release (stress hormone), and nervous and immune system responses, etc., including chronic inflammation, which in turn affects our disease predisposition. We know today, that inflammation is a major contributing cause of most chronic disease and plays a role in cancer progression. For more information on inflammation, and how it affects our health, see my April 2019 newsletter.

The genetic makeup alone is a relatively small factor in determining whether or not we develop a certain illness or condition, or we live long healthy lives. Polli and co-authors stated that genetic predisposition can only explain around 30% of the risk of developing persistent pain. Neuropsychologist Mario Martinez has suggested that genetics account for 25% at the most, in the development of illness. The epigenetic mechanisms account for the rest.

In a newsletter two years ago, I discussed research by Dr Martinez and others on psychoimmunology, which have shown that negative thoughts and emotions produce increased pro-inflammatory markers in the blood and weakened immune function, whereas the opposite occurs in people with a more positive and optimistic outlook, and healthier mental state. However, there is some genetic predisposition here as well. Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, described how some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between levels six and ten on a 1-10 scale, stabilizing at eight, whereas others have more gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven, stabilizing at five. Regardless, epigenetic mechanisms can move such mood swings higher, positively affecting people’s joy in life, and disease predisposition.

Physical activity and exercise has been found to have both a potential pain relieving and anti-inflammatory effect, as shown by effect on proteins called histones around DNA, and pro- and anti-inflammatory markers in the blood. A study by Ihalainen and others, published in 2017, showed that combined aerobic and resistance training produced evidence of a significant anti-inflammatory effect, especially if performed 4-6 times per week, versus 2-3 times per week, and if progressed to high intensity training.

Specific manual physical therapy rehabilitation aims to do the same for specific body regions, by restoring normal movements and decreasing pain and inflammation, and allowing people to return to an active life style, if so chosen.

So, although our genetic makeup lays the groundwork for who we are and and what we do and like, we can significantly affect our lives and health positively, by minimizing toxic element exposure (including avoidance of smoking), using alcohol in moderation, having a physically active life style and exercise at least four days a week, controlling stress through e.g. meditation or other techniques and staying positive and optimistic in life ( especially when we experience unavoidable emotional hardship), adhering to a healthy anti-inflammatory diet ( see July 2014 newsletter) which you can enjoy, and seeking professional help when experiencing significant or lasting physical or emotional pain.

By doing so, we can direct our cellular DNA “piano keys” to play the songs we want to hear via epigenetic mechanisms. We will learn much more about how exactly this works, over the next decade or two.

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