Your DNA from your parents is not your destiny – 70% to 95% of the risk of developing high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmunity, mental health problems, and dementia is linked to just three things: smoking status, diet quality, and physical activity. You do not have to get the same diabetes, obesity, or dementia that you see in your family tree.
When I went to medical school in the early 1980s, medical students were taught that chronic disease was a consequence of altered biochemistry, driven mostly by a person’s genes. Because of the number of proteins our bodies manufacture, scientists expected humans to have 100,000 or more genes, though we now know we have approximately 23,000 genes.
With the advent of the Human Genome project, the medical community expected that sequencing our DNA would allow us to cure chronic disease, though that has not exactly turned out to be the case.
Is Your Health All Genetics?
While it’s true that the genes you receive from your parents have a significant influence on your health, scientists have learned that it’s not genes alone that determine health. Aspects of your environment play a powerful role in “turning on” and “turning off” your genetic inheritance, creating disease or health without changing DNA sequence. Our genes, it turns out, are not the main driver of the epidemic of chronic disease that is afflicting both developed and developing societies—our environment is.
Every aspect of our lives continuously speaks to our genes, turning some genes off and other genes on, and research in this field (known as epigenetics) is exploding. Specific actions that will turn on more disease-promoting genes include:
- Eating sugar and sweetened beverages. Americans eat 150 pounds of sugar each year. The more sugar consumed, the greater the risk for obesity, heart disease, and early memory loss.
- Sitting several hours each day. The amount of time spent sitting is an independent risk factor for developing heart disease.
- Sleeping less than 6 hours a night. Less than 6 hours of sleep each night increases the level of stress hormones, which increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems, and early memory loss.
- Smoking. Smoking increases inflammation and the risk of heart disease and early memory loss.
- Toxin exposure. Exposure to toxins including pesticides, heavy metals, and plastics increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health problems.
How to Turn On Health-Promoting Genes
You can shift your diet and lifestyle choices to turn on health-promoting genes by doing the following:
- Replace sugar and sweeteners with vegetables. Many studies have shown that the more vegetables you consume, the lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mental health problems, and mortality from all causes.
- Set a timer to remind yourself to move every hour. You could do a short walk, deep squats, push ups, or some other movement that fits into your day. Short movements every hour can be an important way to undo the damage of prolonged inactivity.
- Sleep at night. Go to sleep and wake up at a consistent time. Get some daylight every day which will increase the body’s ability to make melatonin, the sleep hormone.
- Reduce your exposure to toxins. Stop smoking. Eat more vegetables to help your body eliminate toxins more effectively. Use the Environmental Working Group consumer guides to prioritize which vegetables and fruits to purchase as organic produce.