When the results of Florence’s genetic testing came back, her first response was despair. “Am I just doomed to be this size forever?” she asked, looking down at her size 22 body. Luckily, the answer is an emphatic NO!
Florence had a couple of genetic markers that can indicate an increased risk of obesity. But I told her what I’ve been telling women for years — your genes are NOT your destiny. That said, they do give us valuable information about what might (or might not) work well for your unique body.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt a certain way, and had the urge to express it but knew that you had to do so productively? Maybe you wanted to cry, but you were in the middle of an important meeting, so you suppressed the urge. Or someone made you so angry you wanted to scream, but you’ve learned that yelling doesn’t solve anything, so you took a deep breath and paused before reacting.
That kind of control over the way you express yourself is an important tool. It allows you to live the way you want to live, rather than simply reacting your way through life.
Did you know that you also have a good amount of control over your gene expression? That means that you aren’t held hostage by underlying genetic tendencies. What amazing news that is!
In recent years, epigenetics research has shown just how much our life choices can impact the way our genes express themselves. But it’s not simple! It takes not only knowledge of how it all works, but a real commitment to living your best life.
If you feel powerless over your own destiny, it’s all too easy to just give in to unhealthy tendencies. That’s why I want to really make sure you understand what epigenetics is and what the research shows about your ability to impact your gene expression when it comes to obesity-related genes and far beyond.
What is epigenetics?
Often, people think that genetics definitively determine health. But that simply isn’t true. Yes, your genes certainly play a role in your health — but the way that you behave, and the environment you live in, also has a critical impact.
In fact, while there are genetic markers associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases, environment is usually thought to be much more influential, accounting for 70% or more of your risk.
And environmental factors (which can include anything from diet and lifestyle to toxin exposure and stress levels) don’t just influence your health independent of your genetics.
These environmental factors have the ability to essentially turn your genes on and off.
As a popular quote goes, “genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger”.
Epigenetics is the study of how this all works. Epigenetics research tells us how your behaviors and lifestyle choices – what you eat, how active you are – and the environment around you can impact gene expression.
Gene expression is the way that your body responds to the instructions it gets from your genes, meaning how often and/or when proteins are created because of those instructions.
Unlike genetic changes, which actually can change which proteins are produced, epigenetic changes can begin protein production – or halt it altogether.
Epigenetic changes begin before you are born, and continue throughout your lifetime. These changes can alter your health in many ways, including weakening the immune system, increasing your risk for certain cancers, or making you more susceptible to specific diseases.
But here’s the good news — many of those changes are reversible with lifestyle and behavior changes! For instance, smoking can cause epigenetic changes that are reversed when you stop smoking.
Epigenetics and Obesity
The role of the environment and behaviors on genetic expression has been studied extensively, with more research happening all the time. An important breakthrough in 2005 showed clear evidence of the role that the environment plays in genetic changes.
Italian researchers studied identical twins, showing that at birth their epigenetics were the same, but over time these patterns developed differences, despite the twins having the same genetic makeup.
Since then, more and more evidence has emerged that backs up what I have long said to be true: our lifestyle choices have a direct impact on our health, our weight, and our genes.
One of the biggest health challenges faced by the women I work with is an inability to lose weight. Of course, being overweight or obese causes myriad health problems including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, depression and anxiety. That’s a lot of reasons to do everything you can to maintain a healthy weight!
Research has shown several connections between epigenetic changes and obesity. Animal research has indicated that early nutritional environments can impact risk of obesity later in life. Research in 2016 identified an epigenetic “on-off switch” for obesity. Still other research has demonstrated how the eating habits of the parent can impact their children’s tendencies toward obesity.
Body mass index, used to determine whether someone is overweight or obese, is also associated with epigenetic changes. In 2017, researchers determined that BMI is associated with widespread changes in DNA methylation. That same research found that these changes are more a consequence, rather than a cause, of adiposity (obesity). What that tells us, then, is reducing obesity may well reverse those changes, resulting in better overall health.
A 2022 review also detailed numerous ways in which epigenetics influence obesity, noting that epigenetic modifications are “dynamic, reflecting the interplay between the body and its surroundings”, as well as being reversible.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that reducing obesity can boost health. What might be surprising, though, is the amount of personal control you have over gene expression. While, of course, you can’t control everything in your environment (and you certainly can’t control what your parents did before you were even born), you can control your own behaviors to promote positive change.
5 ways to reverse epigenetic changes and maintain a healthy weight
- Eat to optimize genetic expression. Eating well goes far beyond the impact it has on metabolism. As I said above, research has indicated that the food choices you make can impact gene expression, impacting your risk of obesity. There are some specific nutrients that have been shown to be able to positively influence genetic expression. These include curcumin (found in turmeric), resveratrol (found in grapes), and EGCG (found in green tea), among others. I think the best approach is to start by going big picture: eat a healthy, varied diet, and you will naturally be including many of these epigenetic nutrients. When you support your body with organic, whole foods and avoid processed foods and refined sugar, you are giving yourself the best shot at reversing the impact of earlier choices – made by you and your parents! Once you’ve mastered your diet, you may also want to consider supplementing with some of the powerful nutrients listed above, like curcumin.
- Stay active. Various forms of exercise have been shown to be associated with epigenetic changes that can impact weight. One review showed that both resistance training and endurance exercise impacted changes that contribute to healthy metabolism and muscle development. Beyond epigenetic changes, there is enough other research on the positive impact of exercise to support the idea that an active lifestyle can result in positive health outcomes – including weight loss. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to exercise vigorously for hours every day. A few simple habit shifts can make a big difference! For instance, try parking at the far end of a lot instead of right near the door, walking in place while you watch TV, or starting your day with a quick weight training circuit. All activity counts!
- Stop smoking. Research on this is clear – smoking causes epigenetic changes that lead to significant adverse health outcomes. From abnormal inflammation to accelerated aging of organs, the epigenetic consequences of smoking can be quite serious. The good news is, smoking cessation can reverse these changes, allowing your body to heal. Breaking addiction can be exceedingly difficult, and I advise working with a healthcare professional to find cessation methods that work best for you. I’m not saying it will be easy — but I promise it will be worth it!
- Limit exposure to environmental toxins. Chemicals in our environment can lead to major health consequences – in part due to the epigenetic changes that result from that exposure. While you can’t avoid all toxins (they’re in the very air we breathe and the soil our food is grown in, unfortunately) you can limit exposure if you are paying close attention. Check labels on the beauty and cleaning products you use, and search for natural alternatives. Buy organic food whenever possible. Drink filtered (not bottled) water when you can. Store food in glass, not plastic. All of these little things can add up to a lot less exposure!
- Stress reduction. I’ve talked a lot about stress hormones and how they impact health. Evidence suggests that epigenetic changes occur with constant exposure to stress. Sadly, in our modern world, stress is everywhere! Between work deadlines and family responsibilities, it often seems like we can’t find one single moment for ourselves. But it’s imperative to do so! Give yourself a few minutes at the beginning and end of the day to simply breathe. Learn to say no to the constant demands of others in favor of saying yes to yourself. Find activities that bring you true joy to help you release pent up stress. Take note (in writing, if you can) of all the things you are grateful for in your life. Remember that life is to be enjoyed – and that’s not possible if your body is always on high alert for threats to survival. Luckily, real threats are few and far between. Learning to recognize and respond to stress is essential in maintaining good health and a healthy weight!
- One size fits all for weight loss is no longer true. This is where genetic information is so helpful in understanding our unique genetics that make different diet plans appropriate for different people. Some of us need Low Carb, some need Low Fat, some need Mediterranean and some need Balanced Diet plans. Therein lies the clue for many.
Florence was so relieved when I told her that, despite certain genetic markers, she had a lot of control over her body. Learning to make good choices to combat increased risk of obesity made a big difference for Florence. And it can make a big difference to you, too!
I think embracing epigenetics is one of the most empowering things you can do to improve your health. It puts you in the driver’s seat, and allows you to own your own destiny.
Life is not meant to be a passive experience. The more control you take over the factors that impact your health, the more likely it is that you will not only survive — you’ll thrive!