We are all familiar with the old-time debate of nature versus nurture. Well times have changed. When it comes to your genetics, we now know health outcomes are not set in stone but are a combination of the genes you have from inception (nature) AND environmental influences on you since that moment (nurture). Environmental exposures start as early as in the womb and continue throughout life. Some influences are very tangible, such as a direct chemical exposure, while others are more elusive, such as observing domestic violence. However, all may act as a form of stress on the body. The good news is that if you are reading this, you still have the opportunity to positively modify environmental impacts on your genetics going forward.
Here is one example of environmental impact on our genes: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Everyone has an ACE number which correlates to a set of environmental influences (experiences) that are potentially traumatic events and may increase risk factors for adverse health outcomes. A quick search online can provide a form you can use to easily determine your ACE score. The higher number of ACEs you have correlates with a higher risk for many negative health outcomes later in life. Despite the name, ACEs are not restricted to childhood; they can also be events that we experience as adults such as divorce, lack of health insurance and unemployment. Some of the health impacts associated with ACEs are chronic diseases including obesity, coronary heart disease, autoimmune diseases and health challenges including depression and substance abuse. ACEs are just one example demonstrating the data that exists regarding epigenetics: how your environment (adverse events) can affect your gene expression (health risks).
So how does that happen anyway? How does an event (elusive or tangible) materialize into a physical health outcome? Those details are beyond the scope of this article. To grossly summarize, experiences (nurture), beneficial or unfavorable, can cause a chain of events in our bodies that can subsequently turn on or turn off the expression of some of our genes. This can be illustrated by the phenomenon that certain (hereditary) autoimmune diseases commonly present following a huge life event (a stressful experience).
Environmental influences are not all negative. As adults, we typically have more control over our experiences and environment than we did as children. We can certainly make choices that nurture our health positively. Focusing on optimizing what are known in the naturopathic medicine community as the “Foundations of Health” is a great place to start. Foundations of health include nutritious food, clean water, clean air and being in nature, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, family/social/community life and spiritual beliefs.
This is the good news! Despite the cards we were dealt at conception or during childhood, we can still positively impact our health by providing positive experiences for our bodies.
With the new year upon us, prioritize each of these foundations of health and positively impact your epigenetics and health trajectory. For more insight on making changes, see my January/February 2022 article “Making Changes: What’s Your Narrative.”
Dr. Jainuddin is a naturopathic primary care doctor at One Life Naturopathic and also offers biofeedback training and craniosacral therapy. For more information, call (442) 256.5963 or visit www.onelifenaturopathic.org.