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Conscious Choices

by Liz Robins

Biology is not destiny, says Deepak Chopra and his Super Genes coauthor. In fact, new research shows that healthy lifestyle choices can override genetics

Have you ever attributed a personal health issue or concern to “bad genes,” assuming you were helpless in the face of the genetic hand you’d been dealt?

Until recently, genes were thought to be unchangeable and largely responsible for disease. But it turns out that the concept of “biology as destiny” no longer holds up. In fact, only about five percent of disease mutations guarantee the onset of disease. The vast majority of mutations only increase one’s susceptibility in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors.

“Your genes are fluid, dynamic and responsive to everything you think and do,” says Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and cofounder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. In Dr. Chopra’s book Super Genes (Penguin Random House), he and coauthor Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, a professor and global authority on genetics, explain how health and lifestyle choices can benefit our genetics as well as our overall health and happiness.

Introducing the Super Genome

The 23,000 or so genes every person inherits from their parents (and where 97 percent of your DNA is found) make up just one part of what Chopra and Tanzi call the super genome. Another component is the epigenome, where genes get switched on or off and up or down, like a dimmer switch. The third part is the microbiome, made up of genes inside trillions of health-promoting microbes, most of which are in your gut.

According to Chopra, five things that positively affect you and the super genome are healthy food, water and air; physical fitness; meditation; love, affection and appreciation; and creative outlets. Let’s take a closer look at what you can do.

Adopt an Anti-inflammatory Diet

Diet has a significant effect on both the microbiome and epigenome, so Chopra and Tanzi recommend an anti-inflammatory diet. It resets the microbiome, helps restore balance and can lead to healthy weight loss.

This type of diet includes fatty fish or fish oil, berries, seeds, tree nuts, whole grains, dark leafy greens, soy, ginger, turmeric, garlic and olive oil, among other foods. (See health.com for a more comprehensive list.) Including prebiotic and probiotic foods also supports the microbiome. Limit inflammation-boosting foods such as red meat, factory-raised chicken and pork, non-free-range eggs, saturated and trans fats, white rice, white bread, French fries and sugary sodas, among others.

Manage Stress with Meditation

Meditation is an incredibly effective way to reduce stress, handle negative emotions and rebalance the mind-body system. Stress can actually cause changes to the epigenome and activity of genes, so getting it under control is vital to good health.

Meditation can also result in long-term structural changes in your brain, according to the Super Genes authors, while boosting your sense of self and empathy toward others. The latest research has discovered increased brain activity after only eight weeks of meditating for as little as 20 minutes twice a day.

A recent research study at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, CA, found that women who learned to meditate over the course of a week (compared to a control group that didn’t meditate) experienced suppressed gene activity related to wound healing and viral infection, as well as positive changes in genes linked to Alzheimer’s risk and a dramatic increase in anti-aging activity.

One simple way to meditate is to sit alone for 10 minutes over your lunch hour with your eyes closed, focusing on your breath (with no distractions). For greater benefits, take a meditation course or use a meditation app daily.

Keep Moving with Exercise

Among other benefits, exercise helps moderate inflammation in the body that can lead to disease. When we exercise, our anti-inflammatory genes are switched on and the switches are turned off on our pro-inflammatory genes. Research has also found that regular exercise erases, to a large extent, the increased risk of obesity associated with the gene variant most closely linked to obesity risk.

At least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week is ideal. Some simple ways to meet that target include taking brisk walks, working with light weights while watching TV, doing housework, spending half of your lunch hour exercising or taking up a new sport. Chopra and Tanzi recommend yoga, too, as it goes beyond exercise alone to bring mind, body and spirit into harmony.

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