Genetics vs Epigenetics: Beyond Pre-Determinism

“The Sage creates his destiny, while the fool resigns himself to his fate.” – Confucius

One evening many years ago, as I was driving from Kew Gardens to Syosset to teach a class in Chinese medicine theory at my alma mater, the New York College of Health Professions, I was listening to National Public Radio. The interviewer was speaking with the head of the Department of Oncology (cancer) at Stonybrook University Hospital. He asked, “Isn’t cancer genetic? Don’t you get cancer because it’s in your genes to get it?” Much to his surprise, the oncologist replied, “5-10% of cancer is genetic. The rest is lifestyle choices.” There was a rare moment of talk radio silence as the stunned interviewer absorbed what he just heard, from a remarkably credible source. He even asked the good doctor to repeat what he had just said, so shocking were its implications.

A common fallacy in the area of health is genetic determinism – that there is nothing you can do to change your health outcomes and future, because of your genes. This is the “DNA is destiny” nonsense. For example, cancer is blamed on genes, though even the hyper-conservative National Cancer Institute acknowledges that 2/3 of all cancer is lifestyle. Genetic testing rubs the microscopic crystal ball to prognosticate what illnesses we will manifest someday. Nonsense. Wealthy people spend up to $100,000 to have their own genome sequenced. A misguided waste.

“People will think that because genes play a role in something, they determine everything. We see, again and again, people saying, ‘It’s all genetic. I can’t do anything about it.’ That’s nonsense. To say that something has a genetic component does not make it unchangeable.” – Eric Lander, PhD, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project.

Patients, having believed the popular misinformation that “There’s nothing you can do. Just hope for the best,” are surprised and relieved to learn that by making conscious lifestyle choices consistently, they can live better, have more vitality and resilience, prevent most disease, and change their future. Each of us has both genetic/innate and acquired factors which influence our well-being, and by far the most important are the acquired influences – what we perceive, pay attention to, eat, breathe, express and do.

“Chronic disease is a result of a complex interplay between genes and environment.” – The scientific journal Cell, 2016; 167: 1431

Genetic factors are inborn and unchangeable, our fixed ancestral inheritance, the hand we are dealt. In Chinese medicine, they represent our hereditary constitutional potential, or destiny(Ming). Very few of us even approach this level of capacity or function. Each of us has great untapped potential to manifest strength, emotional maturity, creativity, greatness of character and spiritual development. This time in history is perhaps an unprecedented opportunity to manifest our innate greatness.

“Everyone has the power for greatness – not for fame, but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Acquired influences are those that occur after birth, and include diet, rest and activity, and other lifestyle choices we make each day. The point is to, as the Serenity prayer states, to accept what cannot change, change what we can, and know the difference. It is to this goal, of making healthier choices in our lives to enhance strength, vitality and peace, which wholistic care is dedicated.

Lifestyle choices and experiences control our epigenetics, which largely determine which genes are expressed and which are not. Epigenetics is how you play the hand you are dealt. It is largely governed by lifestyle choices: nutrition; exercise; thoughts, attitudes and what we express; environmental influences, e.g. toxins, radiation; life experience and how we perceive it.

I have a strong family history of heart disease and heart attacks. That is a tendency or propensity, no more. I eat well, take the best supplements in the world, exercise 3-4 times each week, love those I care about deeply, do meaningful work that serves the whole, cultivate heartful and honest relationships, and (usually) get enough rest – all to enjoy life, and also to prevent the family heart disease pattern from manifesting in myself. What are the choices you are making in these simple areas of food, exercise and attitude? Are you more or less well than five years ago? What’s your well-being trajectory – up or down? What can you do today – eat more nutrient-dense foods, get off your butt and go for a walk, do a set of pushups, tell someone you care about that you love and appreciate them, send thoughts of healing or blessing to someone in need? Small and simple changes often create huge and dramatic results.