HOW TO OUTSMART YOUR GENES
Yes and no. The good news is you can influence how much impact some of them have on your health. Karen Fitta finds out what you need to know.
Inherited health risks aren’t an inevitable fate
Awide range of health problems have a strong genetic link, so if your mom or dad had a condition, your own risk of being diagnosed with it rises significantly too. But even if you have inherited the same genes, it’s not always a given that your health will turn out the same. Why? One explanation is something called epigenetics. And it’s possible to use it to your advantage.
What is epigenetics?
While you can’t change the genes you inherit, it is possible to influence how they function. Environmental factors, like nutrition and stress, can create epigenetic changes, which switch a gene on or off. It helps explain why only one identical twin might develop type 2 diabetes – both twins inherit the same genes, but different lifestyle choices switch the diabetes-related genes on or off.
What do we know so far?
Researchers are only just starting to understand all the ways that changing how genes function can affect a person’s health, as well as exactly what causes the epigenetic changes in the first place. For example, cancer researchers are exploring how epigenetics might turn a healthy cell into a cancerous one. What they discover could lead to more effective cancer treatments – or even a cure. Like genes themselves, epigenetic changes can also be inherited, which means your parents’ and grandparents’ lifestyles before you were conceived impact your health by determining how your genes function. Likewise, in addition to influencing your own genes, your lifestyle might influence how your children’s genes function.
How can I make it work for me now?
Some healthy habits can spark epigenetic changes to your genes right now – changes that may help to protect against everything from heart disease and stroke to diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Some habits might even make it easier to keep the weight off. Here’s what we know works.
The action of at least two genes that are linked to inflammation in the body are turned right down in people who meditate, say US researchers. That’s key because inflammation has been shown to play a role in the development and progression of a variety of diseases, including heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Being active triggers epigenetic changes to at least a third of your genes, including some that have been linked to type 2 diabetes and a higher risk of obesity. When those particular genes are deactivated, the way fat cells store fat improves, say researchers.
• CONSUMING MORE RESISTANT STARCH:
It’s a fibre-like nutrient found in lentils, cooked and cooled potatoes, and many unprocessed cereals and grains. Because resistant starch resists digestion, it makes it to the large intestine where bacteria change it into a short-chain fatty acid. This has been shown to produce beneficial epigenetic changes in cancer-related genes, particularly those that may play a role in bowel cancer.
• EATING FERMENTED FOODS:
Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut create positive effects in the expression of genes related to blood pressure and weight gain, thanks to the way they improve gut bacteria, say researchers. To benefit, choose ‘fresh’ fermented sauerkraut and kimchi rather than the shelf-stable varieties found in supermarkets – these are preserved using vinegar rather than through fermentation and don’t contain the beneficial nutrients.
• GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP:
Sleep deprivation creates the ideal environment for weight-gain-related genes to be switched on. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
• STICKING TO A HEALTHY WEIGHT:
Carrying too much weight is well known as a lifestyle factor that increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, and now there’s another explanation why. Being overweight actually changes how diabetesrelated genes behave, to make developing the disease more likely.