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Control Your Destiny: 5 Epigenetic Factors That Will Shape Your Lifelong Health

Control Your Destiny: 5 Epigenetic Factors That Will Shape Your Lifelong Health

Oftentimes when people gain weight or get sick, they blame their genetic inheritance. But genes are just one factor in health outcomes-- really, your choices have most of the influence on health outcomes. Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors switch genes on or off and affect how those genes are expressed. These 5 epigenetic factors are the main things to consider in your health journey:

1. Genes

As we all know, some health conditions are hereditary. We receive genes from our parents, grandparents, and other ancestors that predispose our bodies to certain tendencies. Some people seem to get away with no sleep, partying every weekend, and eating fast food for lunch 4 times a week and still seem healthy. Others have a constitution that makes them struggle for weeks with a common cold, unable to eat allergenic foods, or prone to weight gain even when they eat healthily and exercise.

Diseases are often also influenced by genetics. Many genetic disorders are extremely likely to be passed on to offspring no matter what the environmental influences are. However, in most cases it comes down to nature versus nurture. Most issues are due to some combination of "nature" (that is, genetic predispositions) and "nurture" (the ways lifestyle choices impact genes). Someone might have the gene for breast cancer but live a perfectly healthy, cancer-free life thanks to their decisions. So how do you stay healthy even if your family history is full of disease? Look at the next 4 epigenetic factors to find out!

2. Nutrition

Nutrigenomics is a growing field of research that studies how nutrition affects genetic expression. For example, the person who has a cancer gene but eats a wide variety of vegetables every day might 'turn off' the gene that would cause cancer. On the flip side, micronutrient deficiencies from a poor diet could cause DNA damage that activates disease-causing genes.

Nutrition is one of the most important factors in our long-term health outcomes. The upside is that most of us have complete control over what foods we eat. However, the discouraging fact of the matter is that it's hard to make good nutritional choices when culture, cost, and convenience are all barriers to healthy eating.

  • Culture: America is widely known to be "overfed and undernourished." Our S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) contributes to high rates of chronic disease and obesity. The ways we can fight this are to educate ourselves, motivate ourselves to make good choices, and spread the good nutrition to our families, friends, and communities. When you are choosing to eat veggies because they make you feel good, it's easier to stay motivated than if you feel you have to in order to meet unrealistic beauty standards. Remember the real reasons to choose healthy foods. Then pass it on! Bring a healthy dish to share at your next potluck dinner; everyone will be thankful you did.
  • Cost: Healthy eating can be expensive, especially if your diet is further limited by choice or need. However, there are some ways you can make it more affordable.
    • Choose cheaper vegetables to help stretch meals. Onions, cabbage, carrots, squashes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, okra, and many leafy green vegetables are often more affordable choices that you can add to recipes or serve on the side and stretch out meals. Dried or canned beans are also very cheap and a good source of fiber and protein.
    • Grow your own. If you have a garden, grow as many veggies as you can! Fresh veggies picked straight out of the garden are probably the most affordable and nutritious food items you can get. 
    • Buy in bulk. Stock up on healthy things at clubs like Costco or Sam's Club, or buy a half or whole cow from a local farmer. You can split your large purchases with others or store it in the freezer until you are ready to use it.
    • Get a CSA share from your local farmers. Community-shared agriculture (CSA) is an awesome way to get yourself a regular supply of fresh, healthy, seasonal produce and support your local economy. Visit your weekly farmers market and ask vendors if they offer CSAs, and if so, what types. There are produce, meat, and seafood CSAs, all of which can make high-quality food more affordable.
    • Eat at home. If you eat out less, you'll have more money for fresh, quality food. Both your waistline and your wallet will benefit from more home-cooked meals.
  • Convenience: If you set aside a day or two each week for prepping ingredients, making a healthy meal can be as quick as picking up fast food. Choose a day to wash and chop all your produce for the week, or even make meals in advance to put in containers for lunch or the freezer, and you'll find that grabbing healthy things is way more convenient than you'd think. Pre-cut veggies make easy salads, stir-fries, or bowls. Research batch cooking and see how tons of others are doing it!

Move on from excuses and start nourishing yourself with your food! Check out past Peach Vitamins blog posts for more tips about how to eat well.

3. Environment

Environment includes all the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis in food, water, air, personal care products, and more. People will have different levels of exposure to toxins depending on where they live and work. People in highly-polluted cities will be exposed to more pollutants in the outside air. Those who work in hair or nail salons will come in daily contact with chemicals from the beauty products. Microwaving food in plastic containers can leech chemicals into the food, which people then ingest. All of these environmental factors can negatively impact the expression of genes.

Do your best to avoid sources of unhealthy environmental pollutants that can influence gene expression. Women who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or nursing should be especially careful. Some exposure is inevitable, but don't worry about it if you are getting normal amounts of exposure to city air or other unavoidable things. Just make up for it by focusing on all the other factors on this list!

4. Lifestyle

In addition to diet and the environment you live in, lifestyle choices are another factor that influence your gene expression. Smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, sedentary habits, and lack of exposure to sunlight are all factors that can influence your health. Most of these things are common sense, but it is always worth remembering that these things don't only affect how you feel tomorrow-- they impact your health decades from now. For more information on lifestyle influences on disease risk, check out these links:

5. Stress

Stress causes the body to go into fight-or flight mode, which humans developed as a survival mechanism. The triggering of the sympathetic nervous system helped our ancestors by preparing them to fight an enemy or run from a predator. Unfortunately, modern stressors have made it so our fight-or-flight instincts are constantly stimulated- sitting in rush hour traffic, worrying about bills, and fighting with loved ones are all situations that can trigger a stress response. Exposure to chronic stress actually alters the immune system and expression of inflammation-regulating genes. Stress can cause inflammation, shorten our telomeres, and hijack our brain's reward system, making us crave junk food.

Reducing stress can be a huge factor in reducing our risk for disease. Stress reduction can take many different forms- there is no right way to do it, just choose whatever makes you feel relaxed and happy! Some things you might try include:

  • Mind-body therapies, i.e. yoga, tai chi, qigong
  • Activities that promote contemplation and inner awareness, i.e. meditation, prayer, hypnosis.  Spending time in nature, i.e. hiking, paddling, bird watching, gardening
  • Creative hobbies, i.e. playing an instrument, making art, dancing, writing
  • Connecting with community or loved ones
  • Playing with or petting an animal
  • Smelling essential oils
  • Receiving massage
  • Deep breathing
  • Laughing!
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