Destiny or Behavior?
In one of my posts explaining some of the basics of Functional Medicine, I began to unpack that our genes play a huge role in the chronic diseases, which are the plague of the 20th Century. However, I was quick to add that we are moving from an era where we think that our heredity dooms us to certain diseases and are discovering that in fact “bad” genes are not a forecast of certain doom.
In point of fact, we have a great deal of control over how our genes are “triggered” or activated. Our lifestyle and environment both play massive roles in determining how are genes express themselves and the conditions they produce.
In other words, you can change your lifestyle (and environment when possible), and this in turn has a profound impact on what your genes do.
This is becoming an especially interesting topic in the field of Alzheimer’s research. We once didn’t understand Alzheimer’s/dementia at all, and then we thought it was genetically determined. Now we are leaning that only a very small percentage (5%) of people with early onset Alzheimer’s have a strongly linked genetic potential for Alzheimer’s.
That means that 95% of Alzheimer’s is the result of lifestyle and environment triggering otherwise normal genes. And that means that Alzheimer’s is largely something we can impact with our behaviors!
Few of us have families that have not been impacted by this horrible and tragic condition, and in no way am I casting blame at precious people experiencing this chronic illness. Quite the opposite—I’m very excited by the possibility that I can help people understand how they can take steps to reduce their chances of Alzheimer’s dramatically. In this way, Alzheimer’s is similar to diabetes, which is interesting, because some new research is calling some cases of Alzheimer’s type 3 diabetes—it’s diabetes of the brain!
Diabetes of the Brain
Medical practitioners and nutritionists are quick to point out the vital role that diet plays for people fighting diabetes. However, we’re used to thinking of it in terms of circulation, blood sugar, and energy levels. What we’re not used to considering is that the brain is impacted, too—profoundly.
I recently read of an interesting study on the Pima Indians of Arizona. The Pima have the highest rate of diabetes in America, but instead of simply having “bad” genes, research is showing that the Pima’s genetics and lifestyle are combining to create these high rates. The Pima’s genes make their bodies incredibly adept at using every single calorie they intake. This is a great trait when food sources are scarce or for the occasional famine, but the Pima now find themselves in a sedentary lifestyle on reservations in Arizona and over-indulging in junk food high in fat and in empty calories, such as sugary soft drinks, low-nutrition processed foods, and, unfortunately, alcohol.
We are learning that the Pima’s high rate of diabetes is due to genes that are particularly good at handling privation but very bad at dealing excess—a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle.
Your genes, my friend, are not the problem, and they are not dooming you to Alzheimer’s like your parents or grandparents. No, like the Pima, more than any other factor, our lifestyles are predisposing our genes to express themselves in a way that leads to Alzheimer’s. Of the more than 30 causes behind Alzheimer’s, all of them have to do with what we’re eating, our activity levels, and our environment. All of them!!!
This should be encouraging news, because it means these are things in your control!
That’s the good news. Now for the bad news: the sugary desserts, bad fats, and nutritionally worthless processed foods that are bad for the Pima are bad for us and our Alzheimer’s/diabetes as well. Anything high in “bad” fats or that routinely makes for unhealthy blood sugar levels needs to go on a naughty list that we indulge in only infrequently.
We can exert control over the major risk factors of Alzheimer’s, which include things like a diet high in saturated fat, poor exercise, chronic inflammation, and lack of brain stimulation. We can change every one of these factors, and the others I didn’t have space to list! Think about this: just by reducing sugar and saturated fat in your diet, taking a few walks weekly, and replacing some TV with more mentally stimulating activity, and you’ve covered most of the risk factors just with a few changes.
The question is: Will you? Will we as a society?
Are we willing to change? Change is never easy, I know. But it is possible.
And our health may depend on it.