Imagine going to the doctor’s office and being told that your genes make you more likely to develop particular types of illness and disease later in life — would you want to have the ability to turn off these genes? Gene variations are responsible for giving us all of our unique personality traits and characteristics including whether or not we have blond hair, blue eyes and light or dark skin color. Unfortunately, these gene changes can also be responsible for some not-so-desirable characteristics that make us more susceptible to certain physical and mental illnesses such as diabetes, schizophrenia, depression and heart disease.
Genetic and environmental influences on disease
Genetics research has been particularly beneficial for showing how certain gene variations, or differences in a person’s genetic makeup, not only play an important role in our appearance and personality, but can affect our genes’ ability to do their intended job. Gene sequences, which are passed down from parents, hold the instructions for making proteins that will carry out a particular function in a cell and can either be turned “on” or “off.” Those changes can alter different structures and organs during development and, subsequently, influence the risk for certain disorders later in life. Although we have no control over the genes we inherit from our parents, we do have the opportunity to impact the way that our genes are expressed.
On the other hand, exposure to certain environmental factors including heavy metals, pesticides, viruses, bacteria, tobacco smoke, pollutants and exposure to the sun, as well as certain lifestyle habits (e.g., smoking, eating fast food, alcohol abuse) can make us more likely to develop certain types of disease. For example, unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and overeating can lead to changes in gene expression, particularly “switching on” genes that contribute to health problems like obesity and lung cancer, while “switching off” the genes that promote life and longevity.
Epigenetic factors increase a person’s susceptibility to developing a number of illnesses, behaviors and other health conditions by flipping the “on-off” switch on genes rather than changing our genetic sequence. In particular, researchers suggest that certain lifestyle choices made by our parents, grandparents and even our great-grandparents can predispose offspring and future generations to disease and other health problems later in life. For example, pregnant mothers who are exposed to infectious agents are more likely to pass on genetic changes that increase the development of schizophrenia and depression in their children, and possibly great-grandchildren.
Turn on good genes by making healthy lifestyle choices
Just because we inherit a genetic vulnerability from our parents or are exposed to environmental factors does not necessarily mean that we are doomed, so to speak. We do have some part in whether or not we will develop certain health problems. By making healthy lifestyle choices we can turn our good genes on and our bad genes off. Essentially, we do this by providing the body with stimuli that promote a normal phenotype (i.e., the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism).
Eliminating unhealthy lifestyle habits such as drinking excessively, smoking cigarettes or living a sedentary lifestyle can greatly reduce the chances that we will experience certain health problems later in life. By making healthy lifestyle choices such as eating healthy, exercising, getting adequate sleep, reducing stress and reducing our exposure to environmental toxins, we can provide ourselves with protection against certain types of health problems. These healthy choices act as protective factors, which can help “turn off” the genes that contribute to disease.
Having the ability to turn on (i.e., upregulate) or turn off (i.e., downregulate) the genes responsible for appearance, personality, longevity and disease may have been only hypothetical in the past — but with the recent advances in genetics research, researchers now say they can alter the human genome using genetic editing techniques, consequently having an impact on the way that our genes behave. At the same time, we have an important role in our susceptibility for developing disease — it is up to us to engage in healthy lifestyle habits and behaviors that promote health and longevity, and reduce our likelihood of developing disease.
Sovereign Health of California offers pharmacogenetic testing as part of our comprehensive behavioral health treatment programs for patients who have eating disorders, mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, and co-occurring disorders. For more information on pharmacogenetic testing or programs offered at Sovereign Health of California, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.