Epigenetics: How Your Environment Affects Your Genes

I’d like to talk about epigenetics today, which is how your environment talks to your genes. Our cells are capable of reading the state of our environment and activating or deactivating genes. This means that, based on the choices we make, we can turn on genes for health or turn off those health-promoting genes. In other words, it is your health behaviors such as diet and activities, that determine whether the health-promoting or the health-robbing genes are active.

picture source: scienceinschool.org

A recent article describes using a nutrition behavior approach to help people lose weight. People in this study made two changes at the same time: eating 5 or more servings of non-starchy vegetables and increasing their physical activity to 30 minutes or more of walking each day. Not only did they successfully lose weight, the markers of inflammation in the bloodstream improved. This combination of more vegetables and more activity was helpful to them, and will help many types of illness, not just obesity.

The vast majority of diseases I see in primary care clinics, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, mood problems, autoimmune problems, osteoarthritis and memory problems, are a result of how your genes are interacting with your environment. Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates, such as flour, potatoes, and high fructose corn syrup, will turn on genes that promote weight gain and inflammation. Eating greens, sulfur-rich and brightly colored vegetables, and grass-fed meat and avoiding starches turns on genes that lower inflammation and lead to a trimmer waistline.

Important Factors Influencing Epigenetics

picture source: truthaboutabs.com

Another important factor influencing the epigenetics of your cells is exercise. Our bodies expect us to be physically active and to occasionally need to run from predators who would like to have us for lunch. When we maintain daily activity, walking 10,000 steps a day for example, genes that lower inflammation and lead to a slimmer waistline are activated. On the other hand, if you are not active, genes that worsen inflammation will activate and lay fat down around your intestines. That fat in turn, churns out more inflammation. The best defense is to slowly increase your activity. A pedometer that counts your steps is a great way to start.

The three components of exercise are aerobic activity, stretching, and strength training. For most adults and especially those with MS, the muscles are often stiff and shortened. For that reason, a regular program of stretching every day will be very beneficial. Yoga, tai chi, and pilates offer excellent stretching routines. Alternatively, consult with a physical therapist or athletic trainer to help get your stretching program going. Resistance training builds muscle strength and also helps prevent loss of muscle. Again, working with a physical therapist or athletic trainer can help you design a strength training program specific to your needs.

By Dr. Terry Wahls

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9 Responses to Epigenetics: How Your Environment Affects Your Genes

  1. Kelly Schat says:

    Hello Dr. Wahls,

    That was a very impressive TED tal! In your TEDx Talk you saided that you’ve done research. I’m a sports and health student from the Netherlands who researching topics from about the same origins. And i’m wundering where I can find your research articles. Could you send me an e-mail about this? You got my e-mail. Thanks you very much in advance!

    Sincere Kelly Schat

  2. Gayle Hardine says:

    She did test me on deficiencies and gave me a list of supplements to take, even though you say we are to get the nutrients from food. Don’t you have a list of people you know who will do this correctly?? I can’t find them!!


  3. Gayle Hardine says:

    I have been trying to find a functional medicine doctor in Southern California. Even when they say they know what I’m talking about they don’t seem to know what I’m talking about, even though they are trained in functional medicine!! I ask if they use a paleolithic diet that is tailored to my particular nutritional deficiencies, they say yes, but then in practice they give the same paleolithic diet to everyone and add supplements. I even went to a practitioner who has your book, knows what you teach, and she gave me a sheet, a list of foods to go by that she gave me one of the two mass produced sheets of food to eat. Everyone gets one of the two.

  4. Leigh Wilson says:

    I have recently been diagnosed with spondylitis in my spine caused by inflammation resulting in lower back pain, I also have Hashimoto’s Disease ( under active thyroid) which is a autoimmune Disease as you would know and psoriasis, It would seem my immune system is out of balance, I am inspired by your video and feel I need to take control of my body, wish me luck I would appreciate any advice you may have.
    Thanks Leigh

  5. Carol Eichelberger says:

    I have Huntington’s. Given it’s known genetic cause, do you expect to have similar results as MS?

  6. Terry Wahls says:

    Eating vegetables, greens, sulfur rich and color is critical for keeping your cells happy and thriving. Carry raw veggies, eat soups, drink smoothies to make it easier.

  7. Terry Wahls says:

    If you want to find a functional medicine doctor – look up the institute for functional medicine and use the find a provider link to look for someone closer to you.

  8. Carolyn Staton says:

    Hello Dr. Wahls. Can you please refer me to your counterpart in Decatur,Ga? I cannot find anyone with your training who is accepting new patients. We currently get our prepared meals delivered through Open Hand. I couldn’t convince them to offer your meal plan , but would gladly switch to a program that delivered a prepared Wahls Diet if it were available here. I have MS and my husband is a wheelchair bound BKA spinal cord injury patient. Thanking you in advance.


  9. Lori Hedges says:

    Dr. Wahls,

    When I was diagnosed with MS in 1987, I proceeded to read everything I could get my hands on to learn about it. Back then, there was very little helpful information coming from the medical establishment. The neurologist simply said something akin to, ‘your body is it’s own best weapon against disease, so keeping it healthy is your best option.’ Since I was always taught not to do drugs, I stayed away from those too. I’ve tried to stay as active as possible and eat few processed foods, including more healthy foods & supplements as I educated myself about them. Omega 3, D3, D-Ribose, Co-Q 10, Calcium w/magnesium, & a whole food vitamin supplement have remained part of my regimen for nearly 10 years. I recently added Rhodiola-rosea & have considered Cordyceps as well. We’ve lived on venison (with some chicken, pork, etc.) for 20+ years. If I could consume more
    vegetables, I think that would be best. I have kale smoothies, with lemon, ginger, & various fruits that give me a boost. My vision has been most affected, with my legs giving me more trouble lately–so I’ve been trying to step things up, so I’m in good shape when I hit 50. Any suggestions? We often have nuts & fresh fruits for snacks, but it’s hard to stay on a vegetable rich diet when we’re always on the run. We enjoy soups in the winter, but I know the veggies are best raw. More suggestions are welcome. Thank you for an amazingly helpful website & for what you are doing to help other with auto-immune issues.

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