Epigenetics and Its Major Influence on Lifeby James D. Baird, PhD | June 11, 2015
In my recently published book, Behavioral Genes-why we do what we do and how to change, I strive to explain the factors that shape our behaviors of which about 20 to 50% is due to the genes we inherited from our ancestors. What makes this perspective unique is that it proves by the science of epigenetics that genes aren’t destiny, contrary to mainstream psychology.
Consequently, we do not have to be ruled by our genetic roots in undesirable habits, such as unhappiness and stressful anxieties. A major cause of misbehavior results from the mistaken belief of social scientists, psychologists and opinion makers that our genes are our destiny and consequently the genetic component of our behaviors is just something you can’t do much about.
Epigenetics, a relatively new science, is studied in major universities and health organizations for treating diseases and other disorders. But, very recently, it is being explored by the science of behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology with regard to behavior. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health announced that $190 million had been earmarked for epigenetics research over the following five years. In announcing the funding, government officials noted that epigenetics has the potential to explain mechanisms of aging, human development, the origins of cancer, heart disease, and mental illness, as well as several other conditions.
Currently, studies have shown that our genes can be modified by epigenetic factors such as; diet, life experiences, beliefs, perceptions, chemicals, meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy. In other words, environmental signals that don’t affect DNA sequence. A simple example is the placebo effect, where our beliefs affect our biology.
Even when you’ve inherited genes from your biological parents, they might or might not be active in your own makeup. When a gene activates, that’s called “genetic expression.” It turns out that genetic expression can be affected by your experiences and even by your thoughts and feelings. At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of these changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations to DNA.
The Epigenome and Genetic Markers
Genes can be thought of as the blueprints that provide the design for the human body and for how it develops. The word genome — a combination of the words gene and chromosome — refers to the genetic information of any organism. The human genome is often called the “map” of our DNA.
However, genes don’t make decisions about what they do or whether they’re turned on or off. An article in Discover magazine put it this way: “A human liver cell contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver.”
The gene follows instructions that aren’t in the genome, they’re in the epigenome, a word that means that it’s above the genome (epi means above). The chemical compounds of the epigenome tell a gene what to do. They’re also called “gene markers.” The Discover article suggests that we “think of the epigenome as a complex software code, capable of inducing the DNA hardware to manufacture an impressive variety of proteins, cell types, and individuals.”
Scientists once thought that the patterns of the human epigenome were set during early fetal development. More recent discoveries show that the epigenome can and does change during your entire lifetime. Alterations are made in response to your environment, which includes your surroundings, experiences, diet, and personal behavior. These changes take place without affecting DNA, but in some cases they’re heritable, meaning they can be passed on to offspring.
In other words, your epigenetic markers can be rewritten, which means that you can modify the instructions your genes receive. Proteins in the epigenome act as the building contractor that does the work of building the organism. You can change those proteins with epigenetic signals, including beliefs and perceptions. That’s because your perception of any given thing, at any given moment, can influence your brain chemistry. That influences the chemistry of your blood, which in turn influences your cells and controls the expression of your genes. In other words, your thoughts and perceptions have a direct and significant effect on the genes and their proteins in your cells.
Mind-Body Medicine & the Placebo Effect
Epigenetics encourages the belief that problems caused by our behavioral genes can be fixed by our mind. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH, formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine [NCCAM]), a division of the National Institutes of Health, reports on a wide variety of health products and practices, since about 40% of our disposable income goes to alternative and complementary therapies. They include acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, Tai and chi and qi gong, and so on.
These mind-body therapies are not accepted as mainstream Western medical remedies since scientific evidence of their effectiveness is lacking. Any positive results from these therapies are generally thought to be due to the placebo effect, When a fake treatment — a sugar pill or a saline solution — improves a patient’s condition just because the patient expects it to work, it is referred to as the “placebo effect.”
In The Genie in Your Genes, Dawson Church commented that placebos cure patients about 35% of the time. Regarding therapies for depression, he wrote: “A recent trial of St. John’s Wort, an herb, found that 24% of depressed patients got better taking it. Zoloft did marginally better, producing improvement in 25% of the patients. But the star of the study was the placebo, which produced improvement in 32% of those taking it.” In a different study, a placebo produced better results than Paxil or Prozac in four trials. The FDA concluded that the difference between the drugs and the placebo was “clinically insignificant.”
These studies clearly illustrate that our thoughts and feelings are epigenetically much more powerful than we often realize. In order for cells to respond positively, however, they must be given the right mental intervention and perceptual thought signals. The NCCIH lists mindfulness and hypnosis among alternative therapies, and there is recent evidence of their effectiveness by studies and mainstream social scientists as well as media promotion.
Watters, E. DNA Is Not Destiny: The New Science of Epigenetics, Discover, November 22, 2006.
Church, D. The Genie in Your Genes. Energy Psychology Press; 2nd edition (April 5, 2009).
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