Where lifestyle and genetics meet

Our lifestyle has a direct impact on our health. We stand a better chance of avoiding disease when we adhere to a healthy lifestyle. However, did you know that you can alter your health at the level of your genes and pass those genes on to the next generation?

Methylation and changes in molecules inside our body impact the activity of our genes. The foods we ingest, the chemicals we breath, the amount of physical activity we do, how we interact with people and manage stress – these external events cause molecular changes in our bodies. Eventually, molecular changes alter gene expression. This process is called Epigenetics – a scientific field that looks at biological responses to environment and lifestyle.

Carcinogens in cigarette smoke affect molecules in our bodies and weaken anti-cancer genes so they can no longer give protection. This mechanism increases cancer risk. The same is true with a healthy lifestyle. Eating healthy can “turn off ” high risk heart disease genes and genes associated with cancer progression. Physical exercise can “activate” stem cells to become bone and blood cells rather than fat cells. DNA methylation can occur after a 20-minute workout at the gym.

The field of Epigenetics is still in its infancy and more research is needed to confirm results. Whatever the results indicate, we should remain cautious. There is no guarantee that a healthy lifestyle gives positive outcomes. Dr. David Katz says, “Let us acknowledge that bad things happen to good people … bad outcomes do not mean bad health behaviour. Let us proclaim no tolerance for blaming the victim of bad fate.”

Epigenetics is shifting public health paradigms. The fact that desirable genes can be reactivated and undesirable genes can be deactivated through environmental lifestyle choices is groundbreaking information. We realize that lifestyle and genetics are inseparable forces. We also realize that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our genes and that we have the power to shuffle the genetic deck of cards in our favour.

Photo courtesy of: Colleen Proppe
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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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