How Health and Lifestyle Choices Can Change Your Genetic Make-Up

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Making healthy decisions may not be foolproof, but it could mean the difference between having a significant health issue and avoiding one

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Since researchers cracked the human genome some 10 years ago, we've had a heightened awareness of the importance of genetics in our risk for certain diseases and disorders, both mental and physical. Subsequent studies have continued to find connections between our genetic profiles and our likelihood of developing health problems, from breast cancer and heart attack to depression, obesity, and Alzheimer's disease. Some people choose to undergo genetic tests to determine whether they carry copies of specific genes that put them at higher risk for various diseases. Knowing that one possesses copies of "cancer genes," for example, can lead to some tough decisions about where to go from there.

A bright spot, however, is that what's also become clear in recent years is that genetics is only half of the discussion. Our lifestyles, as doctors are keen on telling us, are important in increasing or reducing our risk of various diseases. Research in the new field of epigenetics is finding that our lifestyle choices -- the foods we put in our bodies, the chemicals we are exposed to, how active we opt to be, even our social environments -- can actually alter our health at the level of the gene. These choices can have big effects on our risk for disease, even if our genes seem to be working against us. So before throwing your hands up and saying, "What can I do? It's all up to my genes," read on.

HOW CHOICES CAN CHANGE MOLECULES

Smoking is a familiar example of how our behaviors can affect our genes. We know smoking is linked to poor health outcomes. But how does this work molecularly-speaking? In this case, the carcinogens in cigarette smoke directly affect the molecules in our bodies, triggering the growth of cancer by mutating our anti-cancer genes so that they no longer function effectively.

But what's found to be equally true is that the positive lifestyle choices we make -- most notably, eating right and exercising -- may have just as powerful an effect on our genetic makeup. Two recent studies illustrate this point. One found that eating well can "turn off" the genes that put one at higher risk for heart problems; the other showed that exercise can persuade stem cells to become bone and blood cells rather than fat cells. Each helps us see just how lifestyle variables work at the genetic level to modify our risk.

YOU (AND YOUR GENES) ARE WHAT YOU EAT

In the first study, people who ate more raw fruits and vegetables had a reduced risk of heart disease, even if they carried copies of the gene that increases one's risk for cardiovascular disease. The researchers divided groups of participants according to the type of diet they ate. They dubbed the diets as follows: a typical "Western" diet included more salty and fried foods, meats, eggs, and sugar; the "Oriental" diet consisted of more soy, pickled foods, eggs, and leafy greens; and the "Prudent" diet, contained more raw fruits and veggies, leafy greens, nuts, and dairy. People who were genetically at the very highest risk of having a heart attack (they had two copies of the specific genes associated with heart attacks) had about double the heart risk if they ate a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables, compared to people who ate a prudent diet.

The study illustrates vividly how eating well will not only help you feel better in an immediate way, but it could actually alter your genes and reduce risk to your heart in a long term way.

EXERCISE CAN SWAY THE FAT(E) OF CELLS

Exercise is the other piece of advice that we hear over again. It is strongly linked to a variety of health benefits from heart and vascular health, to warding off Alzheimer's, to extending lifespan. But now researchers are beginning to show that exercise may function, at least in part, by affecting the expression of our genes.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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