So why did I end up with an enlarged thyroid at age 41? Have a look at this picture of my mother and me.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? It was in my genes. I was destined to have a thyroid issue. It was set in motion at my conception. There’s nothing I could have done about it.
Not so. That is the old disempowering view about how genetics affect us—the belief that we are at the mercy of the genes we inherited.
Now we have new information that changes the story. But many people haven’t yet heard the updated version. I hadn’t until my first appointment with a functional medicine doctor.
The new story
Epigenetics. In the most simple terms, it says that we have tendencies in our genes, not predetermined outcomes. I find this a hopeful and empowering concept.
“Epigenetics literally means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells ‘read’ genes.”
Why the prefix “epi” meaning “above?” Because the cellular material that governs the patterns we turn on or off sits on top of the genes.
Image via University of Michigan
To be clear, this does not apply to absolutely every gene. In a recent online summit interview, geneticist Dr. Rudolph Tanzi stated that 5% of our genetics are set in stone. The other 95% of our inheritance is set in clay, which we can sculpt to suit ourselves. We shape these malleable genetics through our lifestyle choices.
Why would we care?
Dr. Jeffrey Bland, mentor to many functional medicine practitioners, is author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life. In a short video, he talks about the significance of epigenetics in understanding the origin of disease. For you and me, it means that our unique genes respond to our personal choices in life. This is what gives rise to our health patterns and our disease patterns. We can personalize our approach to “read the health stories in our genes” instead of the disease stories.
Rudolph Tanzi, mentioned above, has co-authored Super Genes with Deepak Chopra. They write, “You are not simply the sum total of the genes you were born with. You are the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”
Not a sentence to poor health
So the fact that thyroid enlargement “runs in my family” is not a sentence to the same result in my body. I did not have to have an enlarged thyroid just because my mother and her grandmother (below) did.
I didn’t know forty years ago that my choices might be turning on thyroid dysfunction. Or that I could choose differently to change the outcome. In retrospect, i recognize that my eating patterns were similar to my mother’s, and can’t help wondering if that is what turned on the enlarged-thyroid gene.
Although I’ve used my thyroid as an example, the principle of epigenetics applies to much more than thyroid conditions. As Dr. Bland says in the video I mentioned earlier, this revolutionary viewpoint applies to all sorts of chronic diseases including arthritis, heart disease, type II diabetes, and dementia.
As is always the case in science and medicine, the emergence of a new way of seeing things is accompanied by controversy. Some of this has to do with disagreement over definitions, scope, and mechanisms. Some has to do with implications for medical practice and social policy—which moves the discussion from individual well-being to political considerations.
I can appreciate that scientists and politicians have their own agendas and reasons for their responses. However, their agendas are not mine.
My agenda is to help my body normalize its functioning and do what it’s meant to do. There are many credible scientists and practitioners who see the possibilities for creating health through epigenetics. I choose to apply that approach in my own life.
That translates into an awareness that what I do makes a difference—what I eat, how much I move, the way I process emotions, and what I think is true. When I choose to act from that awareness, things get better. More about this next time. Until then, comments and questions welcome.