I’ve been hearing and feeling the siren call of epigenetics research recently. It’s a compelling call, one that I’ve been hearing for awhile now. Only after co-creating distance learning curriculum in Science, Spirituality and Healing, which offers students an opportunity to explore the field in depth, have I decided that it might be a good idea for me to heed that call and explore epigenetics a bit more in depth myself. (One of the benefits of collaborating on curriculum is that other people introduce me to new fields like epigenetics). As with many “leading-edge” research areas, there is a lot of “interpretation” creatively extrapolated from the hard science that forms the foundation of this field. This creativity can sometimes blind us and seduce us, so reader beware.
The Gene Genie
Put simply epigenetics is the study of how environment works to turn genes on and off. More formally, from Science: “Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence.” What this means is that our genes are NOT our destiny. Rather, they’re like the first draft of a movie script. Lots of changes at the genetic level are possible all throughout the creative process we call life. The people, places and circumstances we deliberately or “accidently” find ourselves in the midst of, actually work to change genetic expression within us; as do the things we think, feel and believe on a moment by moment basis. Whether we know it or not, or believe it or not, we are constantly performing epigenetic engineering on our own cells. So is the outside environment in a dynamic, lifelong interplay. Dawson Church has written a very readable account of this growing medical research field – The Genie in your Genes. He lists Ten Principles of Epigenetic Medicine, and from his account, it’s clear that there’s much that we already know and a tremendous amount yet to learn and unlearn.
The Genes of Our Children
If Church’s principles hold true for us, then they likely hold true for our children. What might this mean down in the trenches? Well, let’s look at Epigenetic Principle Two: “Healing is a process, not an event.” Neither I nor my daughter ever got sick much. When we did, I used to think of it as an event, one that began with symptoms and ended with us getting “well.” Later, I began to suspect that the seeds for becoming ill were planted long before the symptoms ever showed up. And unless something changed, they would hold the potential for “re-germinating” long after the symptoms went away. The internal and external environment needed to change in ways that no longer supported the growth of such seeds.
The Grate Escape
Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Healing Words, recounts an experience of what happens in environments that don’t support good health. During rounds on a coronary care unit, he asked a succession of men why they were there. On the unit as a result of sudden heart attacks, these men gave answers that reflected their life situation and not their medical histories: “I couldn’t stand to see my boss’s face one more day,” “I feel trapped in my marriage,” and “My kids fight constantly. I would do anything to get away from their constant bickering.” Having a heart attack was the body making use of epigenetics to get them out of an intolerable, toxic environment. And this is precisely the work that epigenetics appears to accomplish: it will continually try to move us in the direction of good health, even if it has to kill us in the process. Presumably, a coronary care unit is a healthier environment than the places these men came from. Healthy environments keep allostasis from morphing into the stress of allostatic load. While this may be somewhat reductionistic, well-managed stress levels do help keep neurotoxins at bay. They promote optimal neurogenesis and synaptogenesis and very likely create a neural network with a immune system stronger than the one constantly under the excessive stress loads produced by physically and emotionally toxic environments.
A Lifetime of Good Health
Canadian palliative care physician and child advocate, Gábor Máté writes in his book, When the Body Says No, about the impact of our early beginnings throughout the lifespan:
The biology of potential illness arises early in life. The brain’s stress response mechanisms are programmed by experiences beginning in infancy, and so are the implicit, unconscious memories that govern our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves, others and the world. Cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and the other conditions we examined are not abrupt new developments in adult life, but culminations of lifelong processes. The human interactions and biological imprinting that shaped these processes took place in periods of our life for which we may have no conscious recall.
By paying close attention to our own and our children’s stress levels and doing our best to make them manageable, it appears that we can create an environment where epigenetics can optimally work its magic.