Flipping the Switch on Genes Affecting Disease

Genes crop

When my doctor first told me that he thought I had Lupus, he couldn’t offer me a cure or a cause. By way of explanation for why my immune system had turned on my normal healthy tissue, he said that the disease was probably genetic. The implication was that I got dealt an unlucky hand and there wasn’t anything more I could do.

 

I’ve spoken to many other people who have been told the same thing when they were given a chronic illness diagnosis. In fact genetic inheritability is often quoted in statistics to explain disease. For instance if your parents had Type 1 diabetes, there’s an 86% chance you’ll have the gene for it.  But when I started looking into the science of mind body medicine for my film The Connection, I discovered that the explanation that ‘it’s all in your genes and there’s not much you can do’ no longer stands up as a prognosis. Thanks to a new field of science called epigenetics, we now know that genes are affected by an intricate interplay between our environment, our diet, our mind and our biology.

 

At this point it’s useful to have a little understanding of what genes are and how they affect your health. If you imagine your body is a house under construction, then your genes are like the blueprint. They sit in almost every cell in your body and contain instructions for carrying out bodily functions. Proteins (the builders, plumbers and electrical engineers of your body) use the genetic blueprint as a guide on what to do, when to do it, and where to put things. You inherit half your genes from each of your biological parents and if your parents, grandparents or other relatives have an illness, you have a greater risk of getting that illness.

 

Until recently, scientists viewed your genetic blueprint as locked in – fixed and unchangeable. But this view of human biology couldn’t explain why one member of a pair of identical twins can develop bipolar disorder or asthma while the other one remains healthy. As epigenetic research emerges, we are starting to understand that while the presence of a gene doesn’t change, the expression of the gene is flexible – for good and for bad.  For example this study shows that training mice to be fearful of a smell can be passed down at least two generations. This study shows that when a male mouse that has been exposed to conditions making him depressed and anxious, he passes these behaviors to his offspring.

 

Studies are also being done on humans. One significant body of research is showing that the experience of Holocaust victims during World War II can be passed down to the next generation in the form of a kind of genetic memory. This study for example shows that the genetic biological markers for post traumatic stress can be found in the children of Holocaust survivors.  While genetic mechanisms alone can’t be blamed for our health woes, what’s becoming clear is that the experiences of your parents, grandparents and other relatives may be having an impact on your health.

 

The good news is that research is indicating that if you actively work to remove the environmental pressures (whether those pressures are based around nutrition, emotional stress, chemical exposure etc), it’s possible to reverse the damage. The presence of a gene won’t change but the gene expression is flexible. Essentially, we can switch genes on and off. What this means is that there is far more that we can do for our health than we ever thought possible.

 

So how do we flip the switch?

 

Regular readers of my blog will already be familiar with the work being done by scientists at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine who taught people to meditate over 8 weeks. What they discovered was remarkable. Genes that counteract the chemical effects of stress got turned up and genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion turned down. Even more remarkably they discovered that the genomic expression changes occurred the very first time people meditated.  The more they meditated, the more anchored was the positive genomic response. Although the study was relatively small, it has significant implications for people with autoimmune and metabolic diseases.  During our interview for my film, Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was involved in the study, told me that daily practice of meditation is vital to maintain the genomic response and that he suspects long-term practice of relaxation techniques like meditation can significantly enhance these genetic benefits.

 

In his book summarizing the latest research on epigenetics, Dr. Craig Hassed from Monash University who’s also featured in The Connection, explains that while epigenetic science is mind boggling, the take home principles for health that arise from it are amazingly simple. Essentially the key is to:

1.  Eat good food

2.  Be physically active

3.  Have a healthy state of mind

4.  Get on with each other

5.  Look after the environment

 

‘It’s extraordinary to think we can be sitting in a chair practicing a mindfulness technique like meditation and practicing genetic engineering at the same time,’ he told me.

 

If you’re interested in epigenetics and learning more about how to switch your genes on and off, I’ve recently finished reading Dr. Hassed’s book on epigenetics and the mind body connection and I highly recommend it. The book is not widely available in stores, but his publisher Michelle Anderson Publishing has generously allowed me to sell the book from my web store here.  You can download the first chapter for FREE HERE.

 

  • Neri

    Lucky me i was given the Craig Hassed book for Christmas. I've also recently joined ph360 an online health program, that helps monitor mind body and emotions. Check it out

  • Jenny

    Hi, This is a great post and I'd love to read the free chapter to see if I'll get the book, but the link doesn't work,

    Thanks,

    Jenny

  • Emily

    I tried to use the discount code for 30% off to order the ebook from the web store, but it doesn't seem to be working.

  • TonyC

    Thanks Shannon, What your blog provoked in me is the thought that we are 'beings' immersed in language and we are historic beings. Stories we are born into from our parents (and from our experiences in life) create our reality and through these stories, or what we tell ourselves in our private conversation about ourselves and the world we live in, shapes our biology. Our nervous systems are plastic (plasticity) and therefore, our biography becomes our biology. We are shaped by our stories, both the good and not so good. In terms of a diagnosis (we can look at this as a story about a condition we have) we should be careful and as you point to, being mindful of looking for the positive and the possibility – and not the other side. Thank you for this blog and the book recommendation.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Tony, I really like your expression that 'our biography becomes our biology.' That's a very eloquent way of putting it. Thanks for your comments. Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Emily, This has been fixed. Sorry about that!

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Jenny, This is the link – elementalmedia.cmail1.com/t/d-l-mjrydr-ttijtdau-p/
    Check your downloads folder of your search engine.
    Enjoy.
    Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks for the tip on ph360 Neri. You must be a bit of a mind body nerd like me. It's a great book isn't it!

  • Emily

    Thank you! Can't wait to read it!

  • Lynn

    Thanks so much Shannon. I downloaded the book.Wow. It was like looking thru a camera or kaleidoscope and having someone come along and adjust the lens so that the picture (concept) goes from blurry to crystal clear. So well written and goes from big picture all the way down to details. But ends in a very practical and down to earth way. I REALLY enjoyed it and found it helpful and encouraging as I do everything that's associated with this site.

    I appreciate your work and your sharing

  • Jay Howard

    Hello! The link to download the first chapter of the book is broken, returns a 404 error. :)

  • Tess

    I had the same issue, but then scrolled down a little to the reply to "Jenny" comment and there's a link there that worked via my document reader

  • Jay Howard

    Thanks Tess!!!!!!

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Lynn, Thanks for the feedback. The heart of the work I'm doing is about maintaining the integrity of the information whilst trying to provide practical tips on applying this to our every day lives. Dr. Hassed's work ticks all the boxes for me and I'm glad you got something out of it too.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Sorry guys. Thanks for your understanding. We're a very small team at this end.

  • Jay Howard

    Hi Shannon, Is there a discount code for readers of your blog to purchase Dr. Hassed's book on epigenetics? Thanks very much!

  • Jay Howard

    Not a problem Shannon, thanks very much! By the way, someone had mentioned a 30% discount code for Dr. Hassed's book for readers of this site. Is that still valid? Thanks again!

  • NathM

    I really like your comment Tony. As a meditator for the last 5 years, I can really see how when we change inside/our thoughts inside, we change how we react to the world and this has a positive effect on ourselves and the people whose lives we touch. It also gives you greater awareness of our bodies and of how certain actions or habits lead to certain type of pains/discomfort (even how certain thoughts affect certain parts of the body). It has also taught me the effect my parents way of thinking and the way they brought me up has shaped the way I look at the world, but also how I can change that and not let this outlook limit the way I approach life.
    Thank you Shannon for this beautiful film that I watched two days ago. I am a great believer of mind-body medicine and a lover of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine. It is interesting that the factors for health from Dr Craigh Hassed is what Ayurveda has been recommending for 5,000 years. Thank you for this blog.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Jay,
    People who are subscribed to my newsletter got given the code. It's GENETICS101 and it expires on Thursday.
    Ta,
    Shannon

  • Cecilia Peter Freeman Strous

    There is a genetic component to everything:
    Lupus, Heart Disease, Cancers but that doesn't mean genetics is "the"
    cause or even an important factor. We might simply be blinded by our beliefs
    and not see the real issues. That is valid for Joe Blow in the street and also
    your heart specialist, oncologist and neurologist. Assumptions can lead all of
    us astray. I believe we need to go back to start and begin our research again
    making no assumption at all and remove all commercial interests. I believe it
    is extremely unlikely that God or Nature designed about 40% of Australians to
    die from heart disease and 29.6% of cancers (figure ABS 2012, third highest on
    the planet for all countries). I think it is much more likely that we do something
    wrong.

  • Rajesh Bhardwaj

    Hi Shannon, You may find this article and the corresponding talk interesting. It speaks on the remarkable connection between the state of our gut bacteria and our susceptibility to stress. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-04/24/john-f-cryan-university-college-cork-wired-health-2015

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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