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.

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Karen Fitta

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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