By Dr Terry A Rondberg
Gregor Johann Mendel published a book on genetics in 1866, launching the scientific community’s near obsession with mapping the human genome in order to predict how we’ll look, what diseases we’ll get, and even when we’ll die.
After little more than a century had passed, society came to believe that the course of life was primarily determined by genes. Weight, baldness, illnesses, and even personality were blamed on genetic makeup. “It’s in my genes,” became the mantra of generations of people who felt they had little control over their lives, especially their health.
Yet, more recently, research has been surfacing that calls into question the whole “genetics as destiny” paradigm. Medical experts are admitting that almost all chronic diseases are preventable – despite genetics.
A study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Research in 2008 stated: “Only 5–10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90–95% have their roots in the environment and lifestyle.”
Same thing with heart disease and stroke. According to conservative estimates by the American Heart Association, 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented. The myth that we have heart problems because they “run in the family” is being disproven every day.
Even “common” problems like obesity are far more likely to be related to life style choices than genetics. A 2008 study of more than 17,000 people who carried an obesity-promoting gene – a common variant of FTO (“fat mass and obesity-associated” gene) – showed clearly that physical activity offsets the effects of the gene. After looking at this and numerous other studies, Harvard University noted: “The contribution of genes to obesity risk is small, while the contribution of our toxic food and activity environment is huge… That’s why obesity prevention efforts must focus on changing our environment to make healthy choices easier choices, for all.”
Most exciting is the work being done in a new field of study called epigenetics, which focuses on how chemical reactions can actually switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations. Most amazingly, those chemical reactions can be triggered by actions within our control – including diet, thoughts, life style changes, and wellness care.
To put it simply, these discoveries can revolutionize the world. As John Cloud explained in an excellent article on epigenetics for Time Magazine. He wrote: “For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured the age of epigenetics has arrived.”
The fact is, our genes establish many of our “default settings,” the same way a computer program’s default settings determine the program options. What science is learning, however, is that we can, to a large degree, change those settings.
Despite all this research and evidence, segments of the medical industry cling to old notions about genetics and use the old myths to convince patients they’re destined to contract certain illnesses because their genes contain certain markers, or gene mutations.
Recent publicity surrounding actress Angelina Jolie has ignited an intense debate about genetics as destiny. When Jolie learned that she had a “BRCA gene mutation,” which would put her at an 87% risk of breast cancer, she chose to undergo a double mastectomy to eliminate the possibility of developing the disease. As a highly intelligent and informed woman, her choice was a personal one to be respected.
However, it sets a troubling example for women who are already constantly bombarded by “pink ribbon” messages about breast cancer. There are grave doubts as to the wisdom of undergoing extreme surgery because the actuarial tables indicate bad odds, especially since even the Mayo Clinic says having the BRCA gene mutation “doesn’t mean that you’ll ultimately develop cancer.” It also warns that preventive surgery such as Jolie chose, “doesn’t eliminate all cancer risk. It’s possible that cancer still might develop in any tissue that couldn’t be removed through surgery.”
Medical doctors aren’t fortune tellers and their tests can neither predict with exact accuracy how our bodies will react, nor how we can make positive changes in our lives so we “beat the odds” without invasive drugs or surgery.
The only real winners in the genetics game are those who make huge profits from the tests and procedures. The company that tested Jolie, for instance – Myriad Genetics – makes half a billion dollars a year in genetic testing. About 85% of that amount comes from genetic testing for breast cancer at about $4,000 per test.
Add to that the cost of the “preventive” surgery, hospitalization, reconstructive surgery, drugs, and follow up care and the total can reach well over $50,000.
The profit motive is obviously a strong one when it comes to recommending such approaches to “health care.” Few companies (including those in the medical industry) have any economic interest in promoting healthy lifestyle, good nutrition, and wellness care that can actually modify genetic behavior and strengthen our natural immune system.
To offset the pressures of these profit-driven companies, it’s important for all of us to make the extra effort to educate ourselves about the innate ability of our bodies to heal themselves. That means making the necessary changes in our diet, our lifestyle, our environment, and our attitudes that will allow our bodies to do what they were designed to do – maintain our health and well-being. We have to take steps to avoid the stress that comes with constantly being surrounded by increasingly fear-provoking messages about disease that saturates our media.
Most importantly, we need to recognize the powerful way the mind interacts and controls the functioning of the body. Our very thoughts and emotions produce neurochemical and molecular changes in cells known as neurons. These changes can alter the structure of the brain, realign electronic synapses, and elevate organic reactions. We simply have to train our minds to concentrate on positive outcomes rather than negative possibilities.
Cell biologist and best-selling science author Bruce Lipton summed it up nicely in an interview for Super Consciousness magazine: “The new knowledge of how perception controls biology reveals that we are active participants in controlling the character of our health and behavior. Our ability to consciously control our perceptions and environment has a profound influence on our lives, versus the old belief system where we are victims of forces outside our control…When we live in the here and now, present all the time, and actively exercise our consciousness to run the show, we create the life we want. It becomes heaven on earth.”
Heaven on earth. It’s within our grasp if we want it enough.