HEALTH, GENES AND THE POWER OF CHOICE

“May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears.” – Nelson Mandela

My grandmother lived to 94 and my mother to 99. Although my father passed away at the age of 78, from cancer due to asbestos exposure (he painted inside the hull of the Queen Mary during WWII), I´m quite sure he also would have lived to a “ripe” old age. As a result, I´ve often been told that I have “good” genes. In other words, I too can expect to live a long life. How many believe that to be true?

WHAT ARE GENES?

Simply put, every cell in our body contain genes (found on chromosomes) that carry the genetic codes for our body. They contain the information that determines our traits and characteristics (i.e., gender, eye and hair color, etc.) as well as information that affects how the cells in your body grow, divide and die.

The information in our genes is passed on (inherited) from both our mother and father who inherited information from their own parents. We can then pass this information on to our children.

In 2013, Angelina Jolie underwent a very invasive surgery to remove both of her breasts in order to avoid breast cancer since she was diagnosed with an inherited mutation of the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene (BReastCAncer gene) that put her at a heightened risk for breast cancer. At a future date she had her ovaries removed for the same reason. Following her announcement there was a heightened concern for the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene, not only among women, but as a marker for prostate cancer in men. As a result, men began taking the test and some even had their prostate gland removed…if the test results proved positive.

The above quote by Nelson Mandela sums up what I believe about the choices we make with regards to our personal health. The medical profession tries to sell us the idea that invasive procedures and drugs as well as continuous exams and testing are our only go to options for dealing with disease causing genes. Simply put…if we don´t heed advise, the future could be very bleak indeed. As a result, fear, worry and stress often prevail because of the possible psychological and physical effects of these procedures… without the guarantee of success.

ARE THERE OTHER OPTIONS THAT ARE BASED ON HOPE INSTEAD OF FEAR?

Upon researching many articles and websites, including the American Cancer Society, the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, I couldn´t find any information that included nutrition and lifestyle choices (i.e., exercise, staying physically active, reducing stress, real communication and relationships – other than social media) as potential options to preventing or treating cancer causing gene mutations…options that for me and others could be considered options of hope.

SHOULD GENES DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT WE WILL SUCCUMB TO A PARTICULAR DISEASE?

1) According to Nutritional Biochemist, T. Colin Campbell, PhD and author of “The China Study” (over 2million copies sold):

“Do we simply accept the cards dealt to us, or do we consider the possibility that we can control our own destiny? If our health trajectory is mostly predetermined by our genes, there´s no point in trying to be healthy. If our choices trump the cards that were dealt at birth, then there´s a reason for us to do what we can to achieve and maintain health.

Genes are the starting point for health and disease events; they are the “nature” part of the equation. But it´s nutrition and other lifestyle factors, the “nurture” part, that control whether and how these genes are expressed. The influence of nurture (i.e., nutrition) has far more influence on health and disease outcome than nature (i.e., genes).”

2) Dr. Michael Greger, in his NY Times Best Seller, “How Not to Die”, writes…

“For most of our leading killers, non-genetic factors like diet can account for at least 80 or 90% of cases. When people move from low to high risk areas (i.e., from one country to another), their disease risk nearly always shoots up to match the new setting. As well, dramatic changes in disease rates within a single generation highlight the primacy of external factors. Colon cancer mortality in Japan in the 1950s was less than one-fifth that of the United States (including Americans of Japanese ancestry). But now colon cancer rates in Japan are as bad as they are in the United States, a rise that has been attributed in part to the fivefold increase in meat consumption.

Research has shown us that identical twins separated at birth will get different diseases based on how they live their lives. A recent American Heart Association – funded study compared the lifestyle and arteries of nearly five hundred twins. It found that diet and lifestyle factors clearly trumped genes.”

3) Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine (2009) for her DNA and gene research, found that a plant based diet caused more than 500 genes to change in only three months! It was found to turn ON genes that prevent disease and turn OFF genes that cause breast cancer, heart disease, prostate cancer, and other illnesses.

My take:

It is not my interest to take anything away from gene research that has been going on since the 1950s with the hope that one day we will be able to identify damaged genes and use that information to cure diseases. Unfortunately, what has been left out of the equation is how to prevent genes from being damaged in the first place as well as the role that nutrition and lifestyle can play, not only for prevention but for stopping and even reversing chronic diseases…once they manifest themselves. Although it´s been almost 70 years since we began studying genes and it´s relation to health and disease, we still find ourselves in the midst of a terrible global health crises that is heading in the wrong direction.

For me, believing that genes pretty much determine whether or not I’ll become a victim to cancer is similar to the belief that getting a chronic disease is “normal for my age”. In both cases we throw up our hands and accept that there´s very little we can do to effect change. To counter this, what we need is fact based information that will provide options based on hope instead of fear and with that information we´ll be better equipped and more confident in making good decisions with regards to our health.

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