One of the most fascinating studies that I've come across is regarding how we can program our genes to improve our health through food and lifestyle choices. Basically, if you eat poorly and live in stress, you make yourself even more susceptible to gain weight, but when you feed your cells the right way, you can start changing the behavior of your genes so that you (and your children) will have a tendency to be thinner and live longer.
We are all born with a FIXED set of genes (aprox 23,000) that determine our physical characteristics such as hair/eye color, and certain childhood diseases. Then we have many more gene mutations, which affect how genes express themselves in your body. And while we cannot change those 23,000 genes, new studies (called epigenetics) show that we CAN change the expressions of these genes, that direct our biochemical processes, and make us more/less likely to get certain health disorders.
It’s VERY important to understand that, even if you have family history of heart disease, for example, this does increase your risk factor for heart disease, but does not mean you are destined to develop it. Only 5% of all disease-related gene mutations are fully penetrated, but in 95% of the cases, you have a chance to influence your genes to avoid developing disease.
Basically, you actually have control over how you age, and are not doomed to get high cholesterol or high blood pressure, even if it runs in your family.
Healthy aging is mostly due to how we “communicate” with our genes through our diet and lifestyle. OUR FOOD IS INFORMATION to our bodies, constantly giving “instructions” to our genes. If we eat nutritious, real food, it sends “good health” instructions to our genes. If we regularly eat foods loaded with sugar, trans fats and chemicals, its simply “bad data” for our genes that will stop our body from properly functioning.
Obviously we know that bad food and lack of exercise will make us fat and more likely to get ill. But this research takes it one step further and tells us, on top of the excess calories making us gain weight, our bodies over time get “re-programmed” in a way such that bad lifestyle choices will make us gain even MORE weight than we would have before, because our metabolism will get slower and all of our healthy bodily functions become less effective.
Here are 8 important steps that you can take every day to optimize the behavior of your genes - to “turn on” the genes that promote good health, and “turn off” those that promote illness:
- Eat REAL foods, FRESH, and as close to nature as possible. Firstly, stick to eating REAL FOOD that does not come in a package no require a label, such as: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meats, wild fish, organic eggs and chickens, etc. Secondly, try to eat as close to nature as possible, because the further removed the food is from its source, the more likely it is to contain preservatives, chemicals, etc (which are "bad data" for our genes). Thirdly, aim to buy fresh foods whenever possible, preferably organic and locally grown. Generally speaking, fresh foods are better than frozen foods, which are better than canned foods.
- Eat a wide VARIETY of fruits and vegetables. The more color in your fruits/veggies, the more antioxidants and overall nutrients you are feeding your genes, basically giving them tons of "good data".
- Avoid over-eating and grazing. Stop eating when you are 80% full. And then allow at least 2 hours before your next meal/snack. Giving your body enough time to digest the food and assimilate the nutrients is key.
- Avoid obsessing over calories. When you restrict your diet to meet a certain amount of calories, or even a certain percentage of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, it can end up depriving your body of the “complete” nutrition that you (and your genes) need for optimal health. And if you focus on enjoying tons of real, plant-based, healthy foods, you won't need to count calories!
- Get enough sleep every night. Most people need between 7-9 hours. Recent studies are finding that even just a few days of sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on your genes, including genes that affect metabolism and inflammatory, immune, and stress responses.
- Meditate. Meditation takes you to a state of profound relaxation, that helps to dissolve accumulated stress (which hopefully you know, accelerates aging and the development of disease). During a program I did at the Chopra Center, I learned that daily meditation leads to a dramatic increase in the "anti-aging activity" of telomerase (the enzymes inside our cells that protect our genes, and determine renewal and growth of new cells). So meditate more, and you'll look younger (and healthier!) for longer.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise keep your body young, but it also releases stress, improves your mood, and increases your brain's ability to learn. Its important to do it regularly – I suggest 4-7 times a week, switching it up and always allowing for some rest and stretching, too.
- De-stress and be happy. When you feel anxious and scared, your body responds with the “fight-or-flight” response, secreting stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. And if this happens too often, it can lead to increased inflammation in your body and ultimately the development of chronic illness. On the flip side, when you create healthy and happy emotions, you’re promoting self-healing. So, make a list of the things that make you happy, and make sure to do at least one of them every day!
Remember, your lifestyle and food choices are INFORMATION FOR YOUR GENES. The more you load up your plate with local, fresh foods – mostly rainbow colored, organic, plant-based foods, that don’t require calorie counting - and get enough exercise, sleep, relaxation and happy emotions, the higher chances you have of living a longer life, free of illness and medications.
To learn more, look into the field of "EPIGENETICS" (which explains how changes in gene activity can occur without changing our actual DNA), and "NUTRIGENOMICS" (which explores the impact of nutrition on our genes).