Melbourne Functional Medicine
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Receiving a diagnosis, or having an ongoing health problem that seems to elude diagnosis, can be frustrating and disempowering. The old school of thought is that health issues emerge as a result of age and genetics, and there's nothing you can do about it other than suppressing symptoms using drugs. Yet emerging science on epigenetics reveals much more to the story.
We used to think that our genes were set in stone from birth, determining our health destiny. However, as far back as the 19th-century, a study that followed the lives of almost 3000 pairs of twins discovered that about only 20% of how long a person lives and their state of health is dictated by genes - the remaining 80% is how we live.
Since then, a growing body of research has demonstrated that diet and lifestyle choices, as well as environmental factors like stress and toxin exposure, can influence which genes are turned on or off. And this can have a profound effect on our health, increasing our risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, autoimmunity, and more.
So when it comes to chronic diseases (not fixed features such as eye colour, height, or hair colour, unfortunately), our genes are more like a recipe book, and epigenetics is the chef that decides which recipes to use.
Consider being handed a sheet of music. Can you hear it? For some, perhaps, for most people, no. It only becomes music when you play it, and you, as the musician, are in control of what you play, and how you play it.
Consider a computer loaded with programs. All the code for the programs is there, but until they are running, the computer does nothing.
Expressing genes -activating them, or ‘turning them on and off’- is your body’s version of running programs, cooking, and playing music. Your body is doing this all the time, ceaselessly, from conception, until journey’s end.
This incredibly complex dance of instructions and responses doesn’t play out randomly, though, instead being a wonderful continuously adaptive symphony of responses to the world.
The life experiences you’ve had, and the way you live, determine what happens with your genes. This is Epigenetics.
One of the key reasons we're seeing a rise in chronic health conditions is because how we live, the food we eat, and what we’re exposed to in our environment have all drastically changed in recent generations, to something that’s unrecognisable to our ancestors, and to our biology.
These environmental and lifestyle factors of modern living can cause epigenetic changes and systemic inflammation that underlies all chronic diseases, and are implicated in the extraordinary rise in cardiometabolic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
This is further supported by there being little disease in certain populations that maintain a diet and lifestyle similar to our ancestors, such as the Okinawans in Japan, the Icarians in Greece and the Sardinians in Italy. These groups experience much lower incidences of chronic disease and live much longer than those in western civilisation. Beyond eating a diet that isn’t processed, people in these communities have a sense of purpose, are active, and have a community - in stark contrast to the sedentary, disconnected lifestyle many people live in modern cultures.
Even skin conditions have environmental factors at play, in particular nutrition, occupational stress, psychosocial factors and environmental pollutants all influence the occurrence and severity of skin conditions like acne and eczema.
Possibly even more surprising, what parents are exposed to around the time of their offspring’s conception such as trauma, stress, poor diet, or pollution can also negatively impact offspring, increasing their risk for cardiometabolic, immune and neurological conditions.
The recent discoveries of epigenetics unveil a new level of control we have over our health, and also show that sadly, many chronic diseases could have been prevented. One Australian study found that 38% of the total burden of disease could have been prevented by reducing exposure to risk factors: tobacco use, being overweight, poor diet, high blood pressure, and high blood plasma glucose including diabetes.
“Only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by genes, whereas the other 80% is dictated by lifestyle.”
Therefore, the approach to restoring health focuses on the fundamentals of health, namely diet, stress reduction, sleep, and exercise, as well as discontinuing risk factors like smoking and minimising environmental exposure to toxins like pollution. All of these, for the most part, are personal modifiable factors that can make a big difference to one’s health, and are the key areas that our functional medicine practitioners and our health coaches focus on with patients in our clinic.
So although epigenetics is a complex science, the message is simple: you have the power to change your genes and improve your health.