Dr. Miller is the nutrition specialist at the Aspen Club.
“I’m overweight, because it’s in my genes.”
“I’m a slow metabolizer.”
“Everybody in my family has heart disease, so I’m destined for the same thing.”
These are statements I’ve heard in my practice. But, I question this. What if our genes do not solely determine our health? What if we have some control over how our genes are manifest, and if by changing our diet and lifestyle, we can alter their
expression? And what if we could keep our health and vigor, sharp mind and wit, and remain active, happy, and disease-free long into our elder years?
Sound too good to be true? Read on.
The study of aging and longevity has always fascinated me. Why are some people able to live long and healthfully without disease or illness, and others get sick early in life with chronic disease? Is it simply because they have been born with “good “ or “bad” genes? Or is there more to it than that?
As it turns out, there’s much more to it. We’ve known for some time, that those who eat more plant-based real, whole foods, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, are engaged in their community, and handle stress better, have less disease and illness. Now scientists are beginning to understand why. And apparently, I’m not the only one who is intrigued with this information, as this is a very hot topic right now.
What we’re talking about here is epigenetics, or the study of gene expression, and factors affecting it. Unlike simple genetics, which is a reflection of changes in the DNA sequence, or genotype, epigenetics has to do with the expression of our genes, or cellular phenotype, and can be altered, depending on the external conditions. . The term epi- means over, outside of, or around; hence, epi-genetics. I like to think of it as being beyond our genes.
Recent studies have shown us that lifestyle factors can actually up-regulate genes for health, while at the same time, down-regulate genes for illness and disease. Meaning, just because it “runs in the family”, doesn’t mean we are destined to the same fate.
Dr. Dean Ornish, at the Preventative Medicine Research Institute was able to show that after only 3 months of diet and lifestyle changes, over 500 genes were beneficially affected. For example, these changes in diet and lifestyle turned ON disease-preventing genes and turned OFF genes that promote heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, inflammation, oxidative stress, and other illnesses. 1,4
And the results followed. Many people were able to reverse their chronic diseases and go on to live healthy, active, and meaningful lives.
And more studies are confirming this. For example, multiple studies show that exercise (especially high intensity exercise), affects telomere length, which is a marker of longevity. 6 Telomeres are the non-coding caps of DNA that protect them from damage. They are shortened with replications until they no longer divide. People with longer telomeres, have more stable DNA, and tend to be able to resist disease and illness better. Therefore, in addition to the many well-known benefits of exercise (prevents chronic disease, reduces cancer risk, beneficial for heart health), there is now accumulating evidence that exercise slows aging at the DNA level. Studies have shown an inverse association between leisure and exercise time and telomere length – finding that those who exercise regularly have “younger” DNA in their immune cells than those who are sedentary.
So, while we can’t change the genes we were born with, we can have an effect on how they’re expressed, simply by how we live our lives. And although our genes do play a role, they ‘re not the only factor.
Mind you, there’s no drug that can have this dramatic of an effect, which is the even more exciting part about it. It’s up to us.
The bottom line here, is that what you eat and how you live, matter right down to the cellular level. Eating an antioxidant-rich plant-based diet, getting regular exercise, learning to handle stress, and being engaged in your community can change how your genes are expressed. Apparently, we do have some control over how well we live and age, and this is good news!
1 Ornish, D. Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, no. 24, Apr 2, 2008.
2. Vaziri, H., Benchimol, S, Reconstitution of telomerase activity in normal human cells leads to elongation of telomeres and extended replicative life span, Current Biology, Vol 8, Iss 5, Feb 1998.
3. Ludlow AT, Ludlow AW, Roth, SM, Do telomeres adapt to physiological stress? Exploring the effect of exercise on telomere length and telomere-related proteins, Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:60
4. Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, Epel E, Kemp C, Weidner G, Marlin R, Frenda SJ, Magbanua MJ, Daubenmier J, Estay I, Hills NK, Chainani-Wu N, Carroll PR, Blackburn EH. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2013 Oct;14(11):1112-20.
5. Byberg L et al. Total mortality after changes in leisure time physical activity in 50 year old men: 35 year follow-up of population based cohort. BMJ 2009;338:b688
6. Ludlow AT et al. Relationship between Physical Activity Level, Telomere Length, and Telomerase Activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 October ; 40(10): 1764–1771
7. Cherkas LF et al. The association between physical activity in leisure time and leukocyte telomere length. Arch Intern Med. 2008 Jan 28;168(2):154-8.
8. Werner C et al. Physical Exercise Prevents Cellular Senescence in Circulating Leukocytes and in the Vessel Wall. Circulation. 2009 Nov 30.