Is DNA Destiny? Experts say, “No way.”
Can you truly transcend your genetic destiny? Can you alter your DNA? Tough question, claim scientists valiantly chasing down mutated brain proteins that may cause Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, researchers are finding that doomed cells for heart disease, breast cancer and several mental disorders are more like the triggers on a revolver: They are perilous only if—and when—you pull that trigger.
“A genetic disease means it’s caused by changes or mutations in your DNA,” says pediatric cardiologist Harry C Dietz, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. A specialist in medical genetics, he claims particular circumstances and “disease states” can overload that itchy trigger finger. “We know certain factors clearly increase your exposure to carcinogens, or cancer-causing chemicals, such as those found in cigarette smoke and other environmental toxins.”
Mutations happen during cell division when genes get mistakenly duplicated or when DNA becomes damaged from factors like UV radiation or harmful chemicals (i.e., asbestos, arsenic, mold). “There are a slew of viruses that also cause abnormal cell mutations,” according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, which studies rare, inherited diseases.
“Choosing a healthier lifestyle alters your genes positively, and as a result, optimizes your ability to decrease levels of disease and disability,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, best-selling author of The Hunger Fix
Genes are found on long strands of chromosomes, and humans possess 23 pairs of chromosomes in every cell. We inherit one set of chromosomes from mom and one from dad, passed from parent to child via egg or sperm. “Genes encode information for molecules that perform a number of functions in the body,” says Dr. Dietz.
That’s where it gets tricky: Few mutations are strictly “bad” for you and certain mutations are beneficial—inheriting beautiful blue eyes, for example. Although we tend to only hear about the worst kinds of mutations that cause disease, many DNA changes have no effect at all.
Scientists estimate that everyone has between five and 10 potentially deadly mutations in their genes, but the good news is that because there’s usually only one copy of the bad gene (in one parent) in your DNA, those unhealthy conditions may never manifest.
In other words, marked changes in your food habits, stress levels and exercise regimen can revolutionize your genetic code. “Choosing a healthier lifestyle alters your genes positively, and as a result, optimizes your ability to decrease levels of disease and disability,” says physician and scientist Pamela Peeke, MD, best-selling author of The Hunger Fix (Rodale Publishing).
Dr. Peeke suggests “poor nutrient” diets that favor fatty calories and sugary diets are as addictive—and bad for you and your brain—as hard drugs like heroin. Dr. Peeke says the healing role of physical fitness and healthy food for upgrading genetics is based on the science of “epigenetics”—the study of changes in gene expression caused by outside, environmental agents—based on years of clinical university research.
Experts like Dr. Peeke offer suggestions for outwitting your DNA destiny:
Know your history. Become more aware of family genetics in order to decrease risk of potential illnesses like heart disease, says Dr. Peeke. Studies at Johns Hopkins investigate which risks are due to socioeconomic and environmental factors, like smoking.
Eat right. What’s good for your heart and waistline is good for your genetic code, says new research from Johns Hopkins University. Diets high in red-meat proteins and cholesterol-packed fast foods increase your risk of diabetes and heart diseases, while diets high in green leafy vegetables and whole grains reduce the risk of inherited cancers.
Reduce inflammation. It’s important to control long-term inflammation—internal swelling and externally in your skin—which is linked to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and other chronic conditions where the muscles and joints (or skin and other organs) are inflamed. Moderate physical activity most days of the week can optimize healthy cell growth, minimize inflammation and act as a natural antidepressant, says Dr. Peeke.
Assemble a support team. Dr. Peeke says a professional life coach can work with doctors or nutritionists in order to help you integrate changes in fitness and stress management using new food rules and tools.
Be mindful. Mindful practices like tai chi, yoga and meditation affects your body, allowing you to maintain a lean body weight but these practices also influence your mood and your thoughts. The American Heart Association has endorsed mindfulness training as an effective way to prevent as well as treat a spectrum of chronic inflammatory conditions, including osteoarthritis and high blood pressure.