Mind & Body
Bad Genes vs. Bad Habits Your body is a complicated machine. Despite all the advances of modern science, researchers still haven’t completely cracked the code. Every day we get closer to understanding the human body, but many of its intricacies, mysteries and biological dynamics continue to elude even the smartest scientists. The relationship between genetics, lifestyle and personal health remains one of the questions that continues to be asked—and answered—in various ways. It’s difficult to say how much of your current health condition has to do with your parents or grandparents and how much has to do with the plate of fried shrimp you ate last night or the three cigarettes that followed on the porch. But the answers are becoming clearer. “We all know that one person, that uncle or aunt or grandma who smoked three packs a day and lived to be 110,” says Dr. Steve Springer, family medicine physician with Imperial Health and founder of allNhealth, a new direct primary care model designed to strengthen the relationship between patients and physicians. “When we hear stories like that, we think, ‘It must be something in the genes. It’s gotta be. What other explanation is there?’ And in some cases, that might be true. But in many other cases, it isn’t. And just because your grandfather smoked Camels until age 90 doesn’t mean you can do the same thing and have the same result.” That’s because the human body doesn’t work that way, Dr. Springer says. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anything more customized that an individual’s personal health status. No two bodies are alike, because no two people are alike. We’re all a mess of cells, DNA, and lifestyle choices that produce wildly individualistic results.” Certainly, genes play an important role. Some genes lead to disease. And some put you at higher risk than others. “For example, if both of your parents had cancer or diabetes, that puts you at a higher risk. But it’s not a certainty,” Dr. Springer says. “The choices you make every day, and your lifestyle decisions, make a huge difference—and research has shown that lifestyle can overtake inheritance. Having bad genes doesn’t doom you, just like having ‘good genes’ doesn’t give you a free pass.” 60 www.thriveswla.com
by Erin Kelly
environmental factors,” but adds that “individuals can lead a healthy lifestyle so that other factors do not augment their risk for disease.” In other words: Your genetics have dealt you a hand of cards, for better or worse; sometimes, how you play the game can make all the difference.
Habits: The Other Part
Genetics: Part of the Picture According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, family history is one of the strongest risk factors for common diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and psychiatric illness. Each of us inherits a complete set of genes from our parents, which can be a precursor to future risk factors. But that’s not all we inherit. We’re also exposed to a vast array of cultural and socioeconomic factors—where we live, what our parents eat, where we grocery shop, what kind of behaviors we observe as children—all of which play varying roles in our physical, mental and emotional health. Inherited genetic variation contributes directly and indirectly to potential development of disease, but it’s not the only factor. It may not even be the overriding factor, according to some researchers. Consider heart disease. “Cardiovascular disease can certainly be considered an inherited condition. It tends to run in families. There might be 100 genes that all play their own role in elevating a person’s risk of developing it. But the risk factors can definitely be sideswiped by lifestyle choices. I’ve seen it happen with my patients,” Dr. Springer says. “A patient can have two parents and two grandparents who died from heart disease or stroke at a relatively young age, and still live a long and healthy life with no cardiovascular problems whatsoever, simply by changing their habits or maintaining healthy behavior.” The same is true of diabetes, which is well-known to be hereditary but also proven to be manageable through healthy habits. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is increasing evidence that genetics play a significant role in noncommunicable diseases, like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and mental health. WHO says that “genetically predisposed individuals have an inherent risk independent of Thrive Magazine for Better Living
So what if you got dealt a bad hand in the gene pool and cancer, diabetes, and heart disease all run through your family? What then? “Simple,” says Dr. Springer says. “You take good care of yourself, just like we all should, and you minimize the risk. Studies have shown that eating a healthy diet can turn the tide, no matter what your genetic make-up says.” He explains that epigenetic research—a relatively new field—has increasingly shown that what we choose to put in our bodies can actually alter personal health at the gene level. “It’s possible that your choices can literally change the course of your gene pool.” Smoking is one of the most obvious examples of how this can happen. We all know that smoking is bad and causes a wide range of health complications— but why, and how? Researchers have found that the carcinogens in the cigarette smoke directly affect the body’s molecules. This can cause our anti-cancer genes to mutate and malfunction. Thus, what you put in your body changes you, at the molecular level. “That’s something to think about before you light the next cigarette,” Dr. Springer says. “But also something to think about the next time you reach for a healthy meal or go out for a walk. Just as cigarette smoke can damage you at the molecular level, healthy choices can strengthen you in the same way.” So how do we become molecular warriors in the gene pool war? “We change our bad behaviors and start, or continue, our good behaviors,” Dr. Springer says. “And the best part is, it’s never too late to start.” Here’s how. Visit your doctor regularly. Too often, people only visit the doctor when something’s wrong. It’s important to see your primary doctor annually, even when you feel well. Have blood drawn. Discuss your health history, habits, and diet. Ask if there’s any screenings you need, or what your risk factors are. “Be sure your doctor is aware of your family health history, as well as your personal health history,” Dr. Springer says. Develop a relationship with your doctor. Find a doctor you’re comfortable with and stay there. It adds an additional level of effectiveness when your doctor knows your health history, your personality, the things that have and haven’t worked in the past, your history of medication and reactions—the works. October 2015
October 2015 Issue of Thrive