12/20/2016 Mind-Body Health
Positive lifestyle changes—meditation, stress reduction, good sleep, a balanced diet, moderate exercise—have a beneficial effect all the way down to the genetic level. For this New Year, try these lifestyle changes that are not only good for you, but good for your genetic future.
This is the time to make next year successful in advance through important decisions that will last and actually work. Traditionally, the New Year prompts all kinds of resolutions (which only 8 percent of people keep, according to Forbes magazine), but almost no one, I imagine, resolves to improve their genes.
The fact that this is even possible might sound mysterious, since the specific genes you're born with remain the same throughout your lifetime. But the activity of those genes varies considerably, not just from year to year, but also minute to minute. The genetic readout of two identical twins is the same at birth but looks very different by age 70. By then, they are no closer than two siblings who aren’t identical twins.
Closer to home, the most current research indicates that getting a good night’s sleep is a trait linked to living longer. That’s not just a sign that longevity is tied to being rested, it’s a sign that good sleep affects hormonal balance and cell regulation—both of them linked to gene activity. In reality, everything you say, think, or do sends a message that’s received by every cell at the genetic level. Thus, the old picture of genes as fixed, static things has been radically revised: your genetic material is active and highly responsive to such things as thoughts, feelings, behavior, and the environment.
New Year’s Resolutions for Your Genes
In practical terms, your lifestyle is communicating directly to your body’s genetic activity. What does this mean for the New Year? Several things:
- Look at every day as a feedback loop where positive input should be greater than negative input.
- Take a broad view of positive input. This includes eating organic, natural foods and cultivating positive emotions. Being happy is just as important during the day as getting your workload done.
- Add variety to your lifestyle—it benefits your cells! Make time for being alone and quiet, playing, appreciating beauty, and communicating personally with the people closest to you.
- Follow your body’s natural rhythms, including eating only when you are hungry and going to bed when you are tired rather than burning the midnight oil.
- Reduce your stress. Stress reduction is immediately appreciated at the cellular level. If you find yourself in a stressful situation, walk away as soon as you can, find a quiet place, and return to your calm center.
- Expand your awareness through meditation; this has deep physical benefits that go beyond the proven physical ones.
This understanding is new and belongs to a growing field known as epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of the epigene, the complex sheath of proteins that surrounds DNA; this is where various genes are switched on and off. In the coming years, research projects are set to reveal just how deeply a person can affect the activity of their individual genome—the findings so far are very promising.
This new view allows us to see that positive lifestyle changes—meditation, stress reduction, good sleep, a balanced diet, moderate exercise—have a beneficial effect all the way down to the genetic level. Within a very short period, taking up a positive lifestyle alters the activity of 500 genes, according to the findings of Dr. Dean Ornish, longtime champion of lifestyle as the key in reversing heart disease.
The upshot is that you can resolve to be good to your genes in 2017. By being good to your genes, you may benefit more than yourself. Amazingly, research suggest strongly that behavioral changes can be passed on to the next generation, through so-called "soft" inheritance. Even though the genes a child receives from its father and mother are fixed, events that changed the parents' epigene (either positive or negative events) can be passed on without altering the genome, only its activity. A key experiment with mice showed that a mouse who benefited from good mothering or suffered from bad mothering was likely to become a good or bad mother in turn and pass the behavior along to the next generation. Similar findings about events that affected our ancestors are beginning to crop up in human studies.
Nobody has yet proved how much or little our behavior affects the genes of our children and descendants in future generations. But we already know that good and bad habits can go viral, even beyond children learning to imitate how their parents live. Population studies have concluded that someone associated with a friend or family member who follows positive behaviors (such as not smoking, going to the gym, or losing weight) is more likely to adopt those behaviors, too.
Meditation at the Genetic Level
Another research program at the Chopra Center indicates that meditation specifically alters genetic activity almost immediately, which counters the belief that it takes years of spiritual practice to create meaningful change. In particular, meditation increases the levels of a protein called telomerase, which has been linked to slowing down the aging process in cells. The fact that a simple behavioral change acts quickly and deeply is very good news for all of us who have promoted the mind-body connection over the years. Science has moved from a skeptical stance about mind and body to validation at the deepest physiological level.
This year, then, is a good time to take a new attitude to your lifestyle, seeing positive changes not simply as something that's vaguely good for you but as something vital and crucial to your genetic future. It's hard to think of a stronger motivation for making a resolution and actually keeping it.