There’s a common misconception that you’re doomed if your genes have predisposed you to certain chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes. But there’s a saying in functional medicine: “Your genes are the gun, but your environment pulls the trigger.” In other words, even if you have a genetic makeup that may heighten your probability of contracting an illness, it’s really your lifestyle choices and environment that determine whether those genes will “switch on” and give the disease the green light to proceed. Take, for instance, children’s pretty significant risk of inheriting type 2 diabetes (25-80%). The genetic risk is there, but in reality, the genes only make up 10% of the risk.1
This might sound a bit strange, given that traditional medicine tends to propose your high risk of disease development is a matter of inheritance– a “thanks-for-nothing” gift from mom and dad. However, the study of epigenetics has grown over the past 20 years, and it has helped us discover that our lifestyle choices have an undeniable influence over the genes that switch off and on. The genes that are switched on express proteins that may be part of a cell structure, a hormone that’s in charge of communication, or countless other molecules that are needed for basic body function. The genes that stay off remain quiet. It’s the “on-gene” that will dictate what gets produced and how it should perform.
So, when the DNA replicates to produce new cells, it would be unnecessary to use the entire DNA code. For example, if your body is in the process of producing a new liver cell, the genes that are turned on during that process might be different than the genes that are switched on when a new muscle cell is in formation. If this function operated otherwise, you would be a fairly simply organism. But you’re not. You’re a complex body with a variety of cells, tissues, hormones, enzymes, and molecules that are all vital to body function.
If you understand this concept, it may also be easy to understand how a string of less-than-healthy lifestyle choices like smoking, binge drinking, a low-nutrient diet, and lack of exercise can turn on your disease-friendly genes. Now imagine that same person decides to seek out a healthy lifestyle and make drastic changes– they decide to eat whole foods, have a regular exercise routine, quit smoking, consume alcohol in moderation, and learn good stress management skills. This individual would still have the same DNA code, but the “switched-on” genes would be completely different, and the healthy lifestyle habits could turn on certain genes that prevent diseases.
That being said, type 2 diabetes is triggered by inflammation. If you come from a family with a long history of diabetes or other illnesses brought about by inflammation like cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmunity/chronic illnesses, or cognitive decline, this list is for you.
By implementing these seven habits, you’ll be able to keep those bad genes in the background where they belong, keeping your good genes in the spotlight.
Happy genes come from a healthy diet, and nutrition is at the center of disease prevention. When it comes to dietary advice, though, it can be hard to sift through the misinformation and contradictions. Here are a few solid principles that everyone should follow:
- Stick to whole and organic foods.
- Limit your intake of refined carbs like bread, pasta, and sweets.
- Kick sweetened beverages to the curb and replace them with plenty of purified water.
The most vital component here may be a whole food diet loaded with micronutrients. Folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, methionine, choline, and betaine are specific nutrients that can improve gene regulation. Similarly, retinoic acid, resveratrol, curcumin, sulforaphane, and tea polyphenols are components found in food, which also help your body properly regulate gene expression.2
Keep in mind that nutrition is a tricky animal– it’s a very individual-based science. What produces stupendous results for one person may leave another feeling worse than before. The key is to find a trained functional medicine practitioner who can take a look at your specific case and recommend anti-inflammatory foods that will help prevent your “bad genes” from carrying out a coup d’etat.
How many times have you heard this one? Exercise may be at the forefront of every health and wellness listicle, but it has been linked to a decreased risk of developing chronic diseases because of its tendency to enhance methylation.3 Methylation is a chemical reaction that occurs when specific molecules called methyl groups attach to DNA. When this happens, the genes express themselves and are able to code for the correct functions. If the methyl groups don’t make it to the DNA, the genes won’t turn on, and thus, will miss their cue in the performance. So, I’ll say it once more: Make sure to exercise; studies have shown that it can reduce general bodily inflammation and decrease your risk of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes.4
Breathe In; Breathe Out
Stress. What can you do about it? It seems to be a “normal” part of our everyday lives as we navigate through this busy culture. But chronic stress, something that we have grown accustomed to, is not apart of our bodies’ natural state. Chronic stress is known to increase the expression of genes that release inflammatory chemicals.5
It would be unrealistic to propose that you stay away from stress. We lead busy lives, and it’s almost impossible to get away from every stressor we encounter. A better way to approach stress is learning how to manage it in healthy ways. This can include practicing yoga, meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSRB), and yes, you know I’m going to say it again– exercise.3,6
Catch Some Zs
Sleep is a crucial time for your body to heal and reset. The day after a restless night is hard to get through, and it’s difficult to shake the brain fog and fatigue. Sure, occasionally a bad night’s sleep might be sustainable, but if you experience poor sleep habits on a regular basis, you’re putting your body at risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes. Bad sleep not only elevates the level of inflammatory chemicals in your body but also reduces gene methylation, ultimately prompting the creation of disease pathways.7-8
When it comes to diabetes, uninterrupted and restful sleep has been pinpointed as a tool against insulin resistance and a promoter for increased insulin sensitivity.9
No Guts, No Glory
It may come as a surprise, but your gut is actually a very important player when it comes to staving off inflammation. This is due to the microbiome. Although it sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, the microbiome is actually what we use to describe the bacterial, viral, and fungal microbes that live and work together in the gut. In the same way our gene expression is affected by our lifestyles and environmental exposures, microbes also take a hit when the body is off-balance. This is because your DNA codes for proteins that are tasked with supporting structures and functions throughout the body, and so does the microbiome.
Most of the creepy-crawly molecules in your gut are helpful, but they are accompanied by enough strains that can harm you if they grow out of hand. These harmful strains can take over if an individual constantly eats nutritionless food, is exposed to certain pharmaceuticals or toxins, and is constantly under a bunch of stress. And when these bad bugs take over, guess what happens? Inflammation! What’s more, researchers have also found that certain microbes in your gut have the ability to actually change your gene expression.10
That being said, it’s important to keep your microbes nice and happy so that your genes can perform at their peak ability. In order to do that, take some high-quality, therapeutic-grade probiotics (recommended by a functional medicine doctor, of course) to make sure you keep the good strains working hard and the bad strains in their place.
It may come as a shock to some, but our food, air, and water are not as safe as we expect them to be. Now, this is not to join the chemtrail conspiracy debate, but at the simplest level, some of our whole foods are sprayed with toxic pesticides or soaked in arsenic and chlorine for preservation; food and water are put into plastic containers that are riddled with hormones that disrupt our molecules and interfere with our metabolism; our homes are filled with toxic air from furniture retardants or pollutants from neighboring industrial plants. Although we may not be able to see the extent of damage in the air, we still can’t ignore the impact these components have on our health.
Research has found that even some chemicals that our government considers safe bring collective damage to our bodies, change our genetic expression, and give way to disease.11 So what do we do? Well, limiting your use of plastics, pharmaceuticals, home goods and cleaners filled with harsh chemicals, and inorganic foods is a step in the right direction. But if you want to take two or more steps in an even better direction, think about investing in a reverse-osmosis water purifier, a high-performance air filter, and consider growing a small home garden to protect your genes from the unwanted harm.
Keep a Watchful Eye
There are many components to preventing, treating, and reversing diabetes, but at the center of everything is the need to find the cause for imbalance and inflammation. This is harder than it sounds because every person is different; everyone has different needs, and there can be no one-size-fits-all treatment method. If you have found yourself diagnosed with diabetes, or you are worried about your predisposition to its development, I recommend that you find a skilled functional medicine doctor who can work with you to pinpoint the root of imbalance in your body.
You are a makeup of your genes, but your genes do not dictate who you are. They help regulate your health, but they don’t control every outcome. Don’t succumb to the mythical “bad gene curse.” You have control over your health, and it’s time to take it back!
1. Szabó M, Máté B, Csép K, Benedek T. Epigenetic modifications linked to T2D, the heritability gap, and potential therapeutic targets. Biochem Genet. 2018.
2. Park LK, Friso S, Choi SW. Nutritional influences on epigenetics and age-related disease. Proc Nutr Soc. 2012;71:75-83.
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4. Ford E. Does exercise reduce inflammation? Physical activity and C- reactive protein among U.S. adults. J Epidemiol. 2002;5:561-568.
5. Alcocer-Gomez E, de Miguel M, Casas-Barquero N et al. NLRP3 inflammasome is activated in mononuclear blood cells from patients with major depressive disorder. Brain Behav Immun. 2014; 36:111-117.
6. Rosenkranz MA, Davidson RJ, MacCoon DG, Sheridan JF, Kalin NH, Lutz A. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013;27C:174-184.
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8. Massart R, Freyburger M, Suderman M, et al. The genome-wide landscape of DNA methylation and hydroxymethylation in response to sleep deprivation impacts on synaptic plasticity genes. Transl Psychiatry. 2014;4(1):e347.
9. Leproult R, Deliens G, Gilson M. Beneficial impact of sleep extension on fasting insulin sensitivity in adults with habitual sleep restriction. Peigneux P Sleep. 2015; 38(5):707-15.
10. Fofanova TY, Petrosino JF, Kellermayer R. Microbiome-epigenome interactions and the environmental origins of inflammatory bowel diseases. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2016;62:208-219.
11. M Collotta, PA Bertazzi, V Bollati. Epigenetics and pesticides. Toxicology. 2013;307:35-41.