Epigenetics - The Power of Self Healing Therapies.

Laughing man (credit: Alex Grey)

Laughing man (credit: Alex Grey)

Can what you eat for lunch affect the health of your grandchildren? Can your attitude and perceptions alter your genetic code, making you more susceptible to disease? Can you prevent or even heal cancer by changing your outlook on life? These are the kinds of questions that the evolving science of epigenetics is currently exploring, and the emerging answers are already dramatically reshaping our understanding of how our experiences and behavior can shape, not only our own health but the health of future generations.

The word epigenetic means "above the genes" or "in addition to changes in genetic sequence." It refers to any environmental factor, either external or internal, which turns genes on or off. This, in turn, affects how our cells read those genes when reproducing and passing genetic traits on to "daughter cells" (a new cell formed from cell division) that may affect everything from our disease susceptibility to the color of our children's' hair.

Epigenetic mechanisms involved in regulation of gene expression. (credit: worldwide.promega.com)

Epigenetic mechanisms involved in regulation of gene expression. (credit: worldwide.promega.com)

"Epigenetics is the way that the genome talks with the environment," says MIT biology professor Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch. "Basically what you have for lunch today somehow finds its way into the genome in a subtle way. This, of course, has health consequences."

As you read this, scientists around the world, including Jaenisch, are collecting and analyzing DNA samples from humans, mice, and other animals to search out these subtle changes to their genetic code. Changes can be caused by environmental factors ranging from stressful experiences to more cuddles as a baby, or exposure to certain chemical and organic compounds. Although we've known for decades that the environment has a major role in gene expression, the scientific world as a whole, especially medicine, is still catching up to the concept according to some scientists, such as geneticist and author Dr. Bruce Lipton. As Lipton writes in his book, 'The Biology of Belief', "the idea that genes control biology is a supposition, which has never been proven and, in fact, has been undermined by the latest scientific research."

Jaenisch agrees, explaining, "The big news is that, yes, we do inherit some genes that can cause trouble, but in most cases, this trouble can be overridden with positive experience and accentuated by negative experience, so the genome is not something that is static. It keeps responding to the world."

In other words, genes are not fixed, and epigenetics is everywhere: What you breathe, eat and drink, where you live, your level of exercise, and everything you do with and to your body. In fact, studies have found epigenetic mechanisms to be a primary cause of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. The media and government health agencies have made a huge deal about how specific genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are associated with breast cancer, but they don't tell the whole story: that 95 percent of breast cancers are not due to inherited genes, but that in fact, most cases are the result of epigenetic changes.

Epigeneticists such as Jaenisch and Professor Dr. Moshe Szyf of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are working hard to understand in more detail how environmental factors cause or heal diseases such as cancer, but Szyf says progress is slow due to lack of funding.

His lab proposed two decades ago that changes to the epigenome (the sum total of all epigenetic changes to your DNA) can affect cancer and other diseases. He has since provided evidence of this, along with evidence that the "social environment", especially early in life, can alter the epigenome, launching the emerging field of "social epigenetics".

Epigenetics mechanisms. (credit: embryology.med.unsw.edu.au)

Epigenetics mechanisms. (credit: embryology.med.unsw.edu.au)

"It doesn’t make a difference whether the disease is a mental health issue, a behavioral issue, an issue with the heart or kidneys, or with your hormones or insulin, or an issue such as cancer. In all cases our body has to be programmed properly," he explains. “A change in programming because of a certain environment can make us more susceptible (to disease) and cause trouble.”

Szyf and his colleagues have also shown that mental illness is related to the epigenome, publishing a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2015 showing that we can treat cocaine addiction by inhibiting an epigenome influencing compound that seems to be related to cancer, PTSD, and addiction, at least in mice.  Although in the beginning stages, Szyf and his team are even looking at nutritional supplements and how their different compounds interface with the epigenome, with the hope of creating nutrition based preventative treatments.

All this talk about how diet and experience can impact our health might be pretty intuitive to the average person, though revolutionary for modern medicine it may be. However, Lipton takes the idea several steps further. He writes in his book that epigenetic changes can come about not only based on our diets and experiences but that this is largely mediated by our body and mind's response to these experiences, which are a result of our beliefs and our perceptions.

Namaste (credit: Alex Grey)

Namaste (credit: Alex Grey)

In other words, what we think and believe (especially subconsciously) may have a much more dramatic impact on our health than was previously thought. Lipton explains in his book that discoveries in quantum mechanics, showing that our bodies are in fact made up entirely of energy, implies a much more holistic view of how our cells communicate and respond to environmental conditions than has yet been accepted by the medical community.

 “…the quantum perspective reveals that the universe is an integration of interdependent energy fields that are entangled in a mesh-work of interactions,” he writes. “Biomedical scientists have been particularly confounded because they do not recognize the massive complexity of the intercommunication among the physical parts and the energy fields that make up the whole.” While discoveries in quantum physics imply that there are such "interconnected information pathways," there is in fact now research that proves it, showing how protein-protein interactions in cells use these "complex holistic pathways."

Lipton explains: "this new understanding of the universe's mechanics shows us how the physical body can be affected by the immaterial mind. Thoughts, the mind's energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body's physiology. Thought 'energy' can activate or inhibit the cell's function-producing proteins via the mechanics of constructive and destructive interference."

This concept is described eloquently by the late neuroscientist and pharmacologist, Candace Pert, in her book 'Molecules of Emotion', where she wrote about how her study of receptors on nerve cell membranes led her to the discovery that these same neural receptors were on most, if not all of the cells in our bodies. Her work not only shows that our 'minds' are actually a distributed network across our entire bodies, but also that the mind can override environmental influences on our physical states. Pert and her colleagues used new imaging technologies to observe how emotions and thoughts create patterns of neuron firing that in turn create chemical releases and other reactions all throughout our bodies.

What's more, Pert and her colleagues found that these patterns can be consciously controlled. What does this all add up to? Since almost every major illness that people acquire has been linked to chronic stress, the fact that we can alter our stress and other responses (Lipton explains that we can do this through meditation and biofeedback), may explain some of the previously inexplicable cases of spontaneous healing, as well as the many examples of powerful placebo effects in the medical record.

 In fact, medical history is chock-full of cases where so-called placebo effects, that are all "in the mind" have dramatically impacted health conditions. For example, the woman who suffered from severe nausea and vomiting, who when offered a "new, magical, extremely potent" drug that would definitely cure her illness, had her symptoms inexplicably vanish, even though the drug was actually a nausea-inducing drug!

Or how about the woman diagnosed with split personality disorder, who, in one personality had normal blood glucose levels, but while in her other personality, became diabetic, with elevated blood glucose. And then there's the multiple instances of disappearing warts brought on by mere suggestion, reported by Ornstein and Sobel. Indeed, there are whole volumes of such stories, many of them packed into books such as 'The Holographic Universe', 'Healing and the Mind' and 'The Healing Brain'.

In short, scientists like Lipton, Szyf, and Jaenisch are telling us that what we know already, based on strong evidence, is enough to change the foundations of modern medicine, especially the way we should be thinking of disease.

Newborn (credit: Alex Grey)

Newborn (credit: Alex Grey)

What's more, there is clear evidence that there are transgenerational effects of epigenetic changes as well, meaning that if we're planning on having children, we need to start thinking of their health too, long before they’re born. Not to mention their children, and so on. Quite the responsibility to shoulder, if you think about it.

The good news is that if what Lipton and other epigeneticists believe is true, we can repair some damage done to our epigenomes to an extent (including by our grandparents, for example), both through diet, as well as through changing our beliefs and attitude to be more mindful, peaceful, and accepting.

Meanwhile, Szyf, for one, thinks we need to put a lot more of our focus on prevention, imagining a world where we, as individuals, understand our customized dietary and environmental needs for preventing and even repairing epigenetic damage that may lead to disease. "I think where epigenetics will go is into prevention," he speculates. "Almost all societies will emphasize healthy practices and prevention just to avoid the enormous costs of healthcare. It's going to be huge."

Lipton also thinks a major change in healthcare is coming, writing that "…we are already in the midst of a very slow shift in medicine, propelled by consumers who are seeking out complementary medicine practitioners in record numbers. It's been a long time coming, but the quantum biological revolution is nigh. The medical establishment will eventually be dragged, half kicking and screaming, full force into the quantum revolution."