By Deepak Chopra, MD and Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D.
The New Year occasions all kinds of resolutions (which only 8% of people keep, according to Forbes magazine), but almost no one, I imagine, resolves to improve the function of their genes. The fact that this is even possible sounds mystifying, since the specific genes you’re born with remain the same throughout your lifetime (except in certain cells as we age, e.g. in tumors). But now geneticists increasingly appreciate that the output of our genes varies considerably, not just from year to year but from minute to minute. The genetic read-out of two identical twins is quite similar at birth, but looks very different by age seventy. This understanding, still in its infancy, belongs to a growing field known as epigenetics. In the coming years research projects are set to reveal just how deeply a person can affect the activity of their individual genome – the findings so far are very promising.
Epigenetics was actually first proposed back in 1942 to explain how gene activity changes according to one’s lifestyle and environment. This area of genetic study focuses on the “epigenome”, which includes the complex sheath of proteins that surrounds DNA. It has become the focus of intense study because localized interactions help determine how the output of genes is turned up or down.
Your genes act in concert, forming incredibly complicated, fluid relationships. Their activity isn’t a simple on/off switch but more like a rheostat. Thus the old picture of genes as fixed, static things has been radically revised: your genetic material is active and highly responsive to such things as environment, emotions, personal and social relationships, diet, level of exercise, biochemistry, including neurochemistry. Since your brain chemistry is directly affected by your thoughts, feelings, and stress levels, even everyday experiences and how you react to them can theoretically affect your gene activity.
This new view allows us to see that positive lifestyle changes – meditation, stress reduction, good sleep, a balanced diet, moderate exercise – have a beneficial effect all the way down to the genetic level. Within a very short period, taking up a positive lifestyle alters the activity of 500 genes, according to the findings of Dr. Dean Ornish, the champion of lifestyle as the key in reversing heart disease.
A corollary to this is that some behavioral changes can be passed on to the next generation, through so-called “soft” inheritance. This has been shown in mice and lower organisms, including water fleas. However, future studies will need to tackle the extent to which this happens in humans.
Even though the genes a child receives from its father and mother are largely fixed, events that change the parents’ epigenome (either positive or negative) can potentially be passed on without altering the DNA sequence of the genome, changing the interaction of DNA with its surrounding protein sheath and its effects on gene activity.
A key experiment with mice showed that a mouse who benefited from good mothering or suffered from bad mothering was likely to become a good or bad mother in turn and pass the behavior along to the next generation. More recently, mice who were conditioned to fear a certain aroma passed on this fear to their offspring via epigenetics. Similar findings about events that affected our ancestors are beginning to crop up in human studies. For example, children born to parents in conditions of famine were more prone to obesity. Could this have been due to epigenetics? It’s the type of interesting observation that future epigenetic studies will need to address.
The upshot is that you can resolve to be good to your genes in 2014, with the hope that any positive changes in your gene activity will benefit you and perhaps even your children. The genetic proof is still in the offing, but behavioral studies have already concluded that someone associated with a friend or family member who follows positive behaviors is more likely to adopt those behaviors, too.
Another research program indicates that meditation specifically alters genetic activity almost immediately, which counters the belief that it takes years of spiritual practice to create meaningful change. In particular, meditation increases the levels of a protein called telomerase, which has been linked to slowing down the aging process in cells. The fact that a simple behavioral change acts quickly and deeply is very good news for all of us who have promoted the mind-body connection over the years. Science has moved from a skeptical stance about mind and body to validation at the deepest physiological level.
This year, then, is a good time to take a new attitude to your lifestyle, seeing positive changes not simply as something that’s vaguely good for you but as something that may be crucial to your genetic future. It’s hard to think of a stronger motivation for making a resolution and actually keeping it.
Deepak Chopra, MD, Founder of The Chopra Foundation, Co-Founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, Author of What Are You Hungry For? and Co author with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Super Brain. For more interesting news and articles visit The Universe Within.
Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi is Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Co author with Deepak Chopra, Super Brain.