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3 Ways to Unlock the Healing Power of Epigenetics According to a Bioengineer Turned Acupuncturist

Updated: 6 days ago


Epigenetics for Health and Well-Being

Introduction

Since its discovery in the 19th century, genetics has been regarded as the primary determiner of a person’s health. This has led to the widespread belief that genetically inherited diseases are written in stone and destined to manifest at some point during the course of one’s life. However, this notion contradicts the ancient belief that behavioral and environmental factors are equally significant, if not more so, in the manifestation of such diseases, a concept that dates back at least to the time of Aristotle (circa 350 B.C.E.) in the West and Huangdi (circa 2600 B.C.E.) in the East. Recent research in the field of epigenetics lends credence to the ancient belief, associated traditional practices, and their ability to influence health. The purpose of this article is to give a brief overview of epigenetics and to offer you 3 actionable ways to unlock its healing potential.



What is Epigenetics?


Epigenetics is the study of phenotype changes caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself; in other words, it is the study of “how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” [1] Gene expression refers to the creation of proteins from instructions written in your DNA. The DNA-RNA protein synthesizing system is considered to be the central dogma of molecular biology. While your DNA determines which proteins your cells can make, epigenetic changes affect gene expression by turning certain genes “on” or “off.” In simple terms, your genome is like a blueprint, a set of instructions contained within each cell to produce all of the proteins the cell may need to function; your epigenome is like the contractor that determines how to use these instructions to produce the specific proteins needed for each cell according to the cellular environment. Some epigenetic changes are part of normal development and aging, such as cell differentiation during fetal development (i.e., all cells in the body have the same DNA, but epigenetic changes determine what type of cells they become); some epigenetic changes are abnormal and can result in disease, such as cancer arising when a gene that makes a tumor-suppressing protein is turned “off.” There are 3 primary mechanisms by which epigenetic changes affect gene expression (Figure 1):

  1. DNA methylation. This is the tagging of a methyl group (CH3) to a section of DNA. This blocks the enzymes that transcribe a gene into mRNA from binding to the DNA. The methyl group can also be removed via demethylation. Typically, methylation turns genes “off,” and demethylation turns genes “on.”

  2. Histone modification. DNA winds around proteins called histones. The RNA transcription enzymes cannot access DNA that is wound tightly around histones. Genes that are tightly wound around histones are turned “off,” while genes that are not tightly wound around histones are turned “on.” Chemical groups, called epigenetic factors, can bind to and be unbound from histone tails, altering the extent to which DNA is wound around histones, thereby modulating gene expression.

  3. Non-coding RNA. DNA is transcribed into coding and non-coding RNA. Coding RNA is translated into proteins. Non-coding RNA can control gene expression by attaching to coding RNA, along with certain enzymes, to denature or cleave the coding RNA so that it cannot be used to make proteins. Non-coding RNA may also recruit proteins to modify histones in order to modulate gene expression.


Figure 1. Epigenetic mechanisms.



3 Ways to Unlock the Healing Power of Epigenetics


Many behavioral and environmental factors, such as diet, exercise, exposure to toxins, and stress levels, have been shown to result in epigenetic changes. [2] In this section, we will discuss three actionable methods to harness epigenetics to improve your overall health and wellness.


1. Live a Balanced Lifestyle


Living a balanced lifestyle involves regulating several key aspects of your life, including diet, exercise, sleep, and exposure to toxins. While, ideally, you would maintain a balanced internal environment through healthful lifestyle habits, in the event that your system falls out of balance, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can be used to restore it.


Diet


The foods you eat can cause epigenetic changes directly through the nutrients supplied by your diet. For example, folate and Vitamin B12 play an “important role in DNA metabolism and are required for the synthesis of methionine and S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), the common methyl donor required for the maintenance of methylation patterns in DNA.” [2] A diet deficient in these nutrients can directly lead to epigenetic changes that have been linked to diseases such as colorectal cancer. Also, polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to suppress tumorigenic processes by reducing inflammation. Additionally, diets rich in fruits and vegetables, which contain many natural anti-oxidants, can also offer anti-cancer protection through epigenetic mechanisms. [2]


Your diet can also cause epigenetic changes indirectly through your gut microbiome. The gastrointestinal tract contains over 1.5 kg of bacterial biomass. The gut microbiome contains “ten times as many cells and over 150 times as many genes as the human body.” [3] It can even be considered a “microbial organ,” with many functions such as “maintaining the intestinal barrier, protecting against pathogens, digesting and metabolizing molecules from food and human cells, and regulating host development and immunity.” [3] The metabolic activity of gut microbiota can “regulate gene expression through epigenetic events in host cells.” [4] DNA methylation and histone modification are partly regulated by enzymes, such as methylases and acetylases, “whose activity depend on host and microbiota metabolites that act as substrates and cofactors for these reactions.” [4] Dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, and the reduction of the microbiota diversity can alter the levels of metabolites and nutrients that act as “regulators of DNA methylation and histone modifications either by directly inhibiting enzymes that catalyze the processes or by altering the availability of substrates necessary for the enzymatic reactions.” [4] In short, the gut microbiome affects gene expression in host tissues, and certain dietary and lifestyle habits that harm or alter the gut microbiome may negatively impact this interaction, leading to a variety of epigenetically-manifested diseases, including cancer, metabolic disorders, autism, and autoimmune disease. Conversely, dietary and lifestyle habits that cultivate a diverse and balanced gut microbiome will facilitate normal bodily functions and promote optimal health and wellness. For more information on the gut microbiome, see our article “Harnessing the Second Brain – 3 Ways to Nurture the Mind-Gut Connection and Use It to Cultivate Wellness.”


Toxic chemicals are another dietary source of harmful epigenetic changes. Many commonly used pesticides have been shown to induce epigenetic alterations that can cause various diseases, including cancer. [5] For example, arsenic, a chemical that is often used as a pesticide, induces “global DNA hypomethylation,” which can lead to the development of cancer. [4] Pesticides, however, are not the only toxin that can lead to epigenetic changes. Trans fatty acids, such as elaidic acid, have also been shown to “exert long-term effects on the epigenome.” [6] Artificial trans fats are created during hydrogenation and commonly found in highly processed foods.


Key takeaway: Consume a balanced, organic whole foods diet, consisting of a wide variety of leafy greens, fermented foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates; these foods will supply you with a balanced nutrient profile as well as natural prebiotics and probiotics that will feed your gut microbiome. They will also minimize your exposure to harmful dietary toxins, such as pesticides and trans fats. Avoid consuming processed foods, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol (although red wine, which contains polyphenols, in moderation, can be beneficial), and antibiotics (unless medically necessary), all of which can directly cause harmful epigenetic changes and/or indirectly through your gut microbiome.


Exercise


It’s well-known that regular physical activity is beneficial to health, and emerging evidence indicates that epigenetic mechanisms are involved in mediating its health-promoting effects. Long-term repetitive strenuous physical exercise induces a “positive stress” that stimulates DNA methylation patterns that lead to increased expression of genes associated with tumor suppression and decreased expression of oncogenes. [7][8] In addition to the cancer risk-reducing effect, the anti-aging, metabolic, and cognition-enhancing effects of regular physical activity also have epigenetic mechanisms.

A major component of aging is the gradual shortening of telomeres, which are repetitive sequences located at the end of chromosomes and serve as a buffer region to slow the process of shortening and cell damage that occurs after each cell division as well as stabilize the ends of DNA. You can think of them like the aglets at the end of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling. Aging and age-related diseases have been associated with the significant shortening of telomeres. Telomeres can transcribe non-coding RNA, some of which are involved in heterochromatin formation and stability of the telomeres. Physical activity increases transcription of these non-coding RNAs, which aids telomere stability. [9]

The epigenetic effects of physical activity on metabolic processes are widespread, affecting everything from muscle growth and aerobic activity to diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Exercise induces hypomethylation of the entire muscle cell genome; as a result, regulatory genes that modulate pathways for muscle repair and growth are activated. MicroRNAs (miRNAs) interfere with mRNA and regulate many physiological processes, such as inflammation, angiogenesis, and ischemia prevention. Aerobic exercise reduces the number of skeletal muscle miRNAs that produce negative effects. [10] Type II diabetes patients have hypermethylation of several genes in muscle cells, such as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPAR-γ) and coactivator 1 alpha (PGC-1α), thereby inhibiting their expression. Exercise has been shown to hypomethylate PPAR-γ and PGC-1α, reversing the effects of diabetes. [10]


Physical exercise also benefits cognitive processes (i.e., learning and memory) through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, exercise enhances the expression of the gene BDNF, which has an essential role in memory formation. It also decreases expression of the DNA-methylating enzymes in the hippocampus, which has important functions in memory, spatial intelligence, and reward. Exercise also attenuates the stress-induced global methylation changes. [11]


Key takeaway: Regular strenuous physical activity, including both resistance and aerobic exercise, reduces cancer risk, decelerates aging, enhances metabolic processes, and improves cognition. If you do not already have a regular exercise routine, it would serve you well to implement one. This does not have to be lifting weights or jogging on a treadmill at the gym; it can include any variety of physical hobbies, including hiking, playing sports, practicing martial arts, swimming, etc. Just pick one that you enjoy and stick with it.


Sleep


We have all experienced the cognitive consequences of a poor night’s sleep. While the damage done from the occasional late night is relatively minimal, chronic sleep deprivation, which is pervasive in modern life, has a “profound impact on the molecular biology of the brain.” [12] Beginning as changes within a neuron at the genetic level, the effect of sleep deprivation results in “alterations in neuronal plasticity and dysregulation of many cognitive functions,” including learning and memory. [12] Mounting evidence shows that the epigenome of neurons plays a critical role in these cognitive effects. Various work schedules, lifestyle habits, health conditions, and stimulants can all lead to sleep deprivation, which causes subsequent neurobiological alterations. DNA methylation, histone modifications, and non-coding RNA molecules modulate target gene expression, resulting in decreased cognitive deficits and metabolic changes (Figure 2). [12]


Figure 2. “A schematic of the three primary epigenetic mechanisms found to be altered following sleep deprivation… Pink tags represent methylated cytosines, blue tags represent unmethylated cytosines, and purple tags represent hydroxymethylated cytosines. The green and blue circles represent DNA methyltransferase (DNMT) and Ten-eleven translocation (TET) enzymes. Black arrows indicate the direction of expression, if known, and additional question marks indicate speculative hypotheses without experimental evidence.” [12]



Key takeaway: Regulating your sleep schedule can have profound benefits for cognition and metabolism. The most important time for sleep has been found to be between 10PM and 2AM. Adjust your circadian rhythm to align your natural sleep processes with this time frame by avoiding stimulants (e.g., caffeine) in the afternoon, reducing blue-light exposure in the evenings (i.e., avoid bright lights and screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime), reducing fluid intake in the evenings, avoiding heavy foods in the evenings, and implementing a bedtime routine. Aligning your circadian rhythm with the natural progression of time during the day will also allow you to better time your sleep processes. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the circadian rhythm is represented by the TCM body clock (Figure 3).

Figure 3. TCM Body Clock. [13]


Exposure to Toxins


Earlier in this article, we already discussed the harmful epigenetic changes caused by pesticides, such as arsenic; however, there are many more environmental pollutants that also disrupt the epigenome. Exposure to air pollution, especially particulate matter (PM), is known to increase morbidity and mortality due to cardiopulmonary disease, as well as lung cancer risk. PM10 exposure has been demonstrated to increase expression of Inducible Nitric Oxide Synthase (iNOS), a key player in inflammation and oxidative stress. [2] Long-term exposure to PM10 also results in LINE-1 hypomethylation, which is commonly seen in patients with cancer and cardiovascular disease. [2] Exposure to PM and metal components has also been shown to cause overexpression of miR-222 and miR-21, miRNAs which are related to inflammation and oxidative stress [2]. Exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons and other organic pollutants can also result in harmful epigenetic changes. For example, high-level exposure to benzene, which is an industrial chemical found in crude oil and gasoline that is used to make a wide variety of products, such as plastics, synthetic fibers, detergents, drugs, and pesticides, increases risk of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which is characterized by “aberrant global hypomethylation and gene-specific hypermethylation/hypomethylation.” [2] Airborne benzene exposure has been shown to significantly reduce LINE-1 and ALU methylation in peripheral blood DNA. Airborne benzene has also been shown to cause hypermethylation of P15 and hypomethylation of the MAGE-1 cancer-antigen gene. These aberrant epigenetic patterns found in malignant cells can be reproduced by exposure to benzene. [2]


Tobacco smoke, which contains many carcinogenic, pro-inflammatory, and pro-atherogenic chemicals, has also been shown to cause harmful epigenetic changes. For example, cigarette smoke condensate decreases the nuclear levels of histone modifications, such as H4K16 acetylation and H4K20 trimethylation, in respiratory epithelial cells. This mirrors histone modifications found in lung cancer tissues. These histone modifications commonly precede aberrant methylations of tumor suppressor genes and are an early event in smoking-induced lung carcinogenesis. [2]


Key takeaway: Avoid exposure to carcinogenic toxins by living in an area with low levels of air pollution, wearing masks that can filter out particulate matter (e.g., N95 or better) in areas with high levels of air pollution, minimizing exposure to gasoline fumes, avoiding heating food in plastic containers (even if they’re labelled “microwave safe”), and avoiding smoking. We can also reduce exposure to these toxins by doing our part to protect the natural environment from air, water, and land pollution.


Restore Balance with TCM


TCM is based on a system of balance. When a system is balanced, it is considered to be in a state of health; when a system is unbalanced, it is considered to be in a state of disorder. In TCM, diseases and disorders are categorized according to the Eight Principles and the Internal Organs*. The Eight Principles consist of four pairs of opposing categories: Yin/Yang, excess/deficiency, hot/cold, and interior/exterior. The Internal Organs consist of five Yin Organs – Lung, Spleen, Heart, Kidney, and Liver – and six Yang Organs – Large Intestine, Stomach, Small Intestine, Bladder, Triple Burner (三焦, San Jiao), and Gall Bladder. Patients are assessed using the diagnostic methods of inquiring, inspection, auscultation, olfaction, and palpation. Based on the patterns of symptoms observed, TCM practitioners determine the nature of the disorder and which Internal Organs and/or meridians are affected. This diagnostic process is known as Syndrome Differentiation (辨证, Bian Zheng).


* Note that the Internal Organs in TCM differ from the conventional understanding of internal organs; the Internal Organs each represent a complex of functions and physiological processes. For example, the Kidneys in TCM may include the functions of the kidneys, adrenal glands, and other organs, as well as a multitude of physiological processes that are involved in water regulation, genetics, bone health, etc. In this article, I will differentiate the TCM Internal Organs from conventional organs by capitalizing the TCM Internal Organs.


Syndromes can be caused by both internal and external “pathogenic factors.” External pathogenic factors, namely Dampness (湿, Shi), Dryness (燥, Zao), Wind (风, Feng), Cold (寒, Han), Fire (火, Huo), and Summer Heat (暑, Shu), originate outside the body and invade the body through the “Exterior.” This can be caused by climatic factors and/or microbial pathogens (e.g., exposure to cold, windy weather can make the body more susceptible to infection from influenza and the common cold). External pathogenic factors must be expelled from the body (e.g., releasing the Exterior and promoting sweating to expel Wind-Cold). In contrast, internal pathogenic factors, such as Qi Deficiency or Stagnation, Blood Deficiency or Stasis, Internal Dampness, Phlegm, Internal Cold, Internal Heat, and Internal Wind, originate from imbalances inside the body (e.g., unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits causing fatigue and digestive symptoms). Internal pathogenic factors must be resolved by correcting these imbalances (e.g., tonifying Spleen-Qi and correcting dietary and lifestyle habits).


While the diagnostic and treatment principles and modalities of TCM predate the field of epigenetics by several millennia, recent research indicates that many TCM treatment modalities, such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, may induce their effect through epigenetic mechanisms. Many TCM medicinals and formulas have been found to contain organic compounds that are “epigenome- and miRNA-modulating via, mainly, interactions with Polycomb group and methyl CpG-binding proteins.” [14] Also, because TCM medicinals are primarily taken through the oral route, they must interact with the gut microbiome, which, as stated earlier in this article, can also cause epigenetic changes; this may also contribute to the therapeutic effects of Chinese herbal medicine. [3] There is also limited evidence that the therapeutic effects of acupuncture may also be partially explained by epigenetics. [15] For example, one study found that acupuncture promoted expression of the VEGF gene, an important molecule involved in the angiogenic pathway, by histone modification of H3K9ace, resulting in myocardial protection from ischemic injures. [16]


Key takeaway: Imbalances caused by unhealthful lifestyle habits are often difficult to correct. Fortunately, TCM is a powerful system of diagnostic and treatment principles and modalities that can restore balance to your internal environment. TCM treatment modalities, such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, involve a complex system of interactions with the body. Some of the effects of TCM treatment may be explained by epigenetics; however, further research is required to substantiate this claim.


2. Reduce Stress


Modern life is full of internal and external stressors that can trigger the fight-or-flight response, affecting a wide range of systems in the body. When this stress response is triggered, key areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, initiate a stress signaling chain throughout the body, causing a variety of symptoms, such as insomnia, high blood pressure, fatigue, indigestion, constipation, loose stools, insomnia, breathlessness, irritability, reduced immune function, fertility problems, and erectile dysfunction. In addition to the harmful effects of overstimulation of the stress response, recent research has indicated that DNA methylation is “sensitive to environmental stressful exposures in early development and later in life.” [2] For example, in one study, hypermethylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene was found in the hippocampus of suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse. [2] In contrast, positive early social experience may epigenetically inhibit stress responses later in life. [2] The stress response is also intimately linked to the gut microbiome; stress may cause dysbiosis in the gut microbiome, leading to harmful epigenetic changes.


From a TCM perspective, the same symptoms listed above can be understood in the context of the Five Elements and Internal Organ theories (for more information on these theories, see our article “The Five Elements”). Stress causes the Liver (Wood) to enter a state of excess, which causes the Heart (Fire) to enter a state of excess, resulting in insomnia and high blood pressure. The Liver overacts on the Spleen (Earth), which causes it to become deficient, resulting in indigestion and fatigue. The Spleen is unable to nourish the Lungs (Metal), so it also becomes deficient, resulting in breathlessness and a compromised immune system. The Heart overacts on and the Liver insults the Lungs, which further compromises the immune system. The Heart insults the Kidneys (Water), affecting water regulation and reproductive systems, as well as accelerating the process of aging. The Kidneys insult the Spleen, inhibiting water absorption. For patients and clients suffering from such a pattern of symptoms, it is crucial to address the root cause, stress, while also tonifying the deficient Organs and reducing the excess Organs. Simply treating the symptoms individually will lead to nowhere as long as the patterns of imbalance remain. Also, chronic stress that causes these symptoms will necessarily and negatively affect your ability to live a balanced lifestyle (i.e., indigestion makes it difficult to eat properly; insomnia makes it difficult to sleep soundly; fatigue makes it difficult to exercise regularly; etc.). Conversely, living an unbalanced lifestyle also makes you more susceptible to stress.


Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are many strategies, including consuming a balanced diet, practicing mindful breathing, exercising regularly, establishing a natural circadian rhythm, spending time in nature, and cultivating your spirit, that can help you improve your overall physical and mental health and reduce the effects of stress on the body. For a more in-depth exploration of these stress-reducing strategies, see our article “6 Keys to Reduce the Effects of Stress on the Body.”


3. Cultivate an Empowering Mindset


Your mindset is a set of belief systems that shapes your perception of the world, yourself, and everything that you experience; it influences your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, all of which can affect your cellular environment through various signaling pathways. As we have previously established, epigenetic changes occur in response to changes in the cellular environment. Thus, your mindset can either be a powerful ally that promotes optimal health and wellness or a powerful enemy that causes illness and injury. For example, if you believe that you are destined to be obese because obesity runs in your family, you are more likely to make lifestyle choices that lead to obesity. So, how can you cultivate a mindset that guides you to health and wellness?


Reprogram Your Unconscious Mind


Mindset is largely controlled by the unconscious mind. It has been estimated that around 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. The unconscious mind controls many processes, including automatic body functions, habits and patterns, beliefs and values, cognitive biases, personality, creativity, emotions, and long-term memory. Many of the components of mindset, such as beliefs and biases, are programmed into our unconscious mind at a young age. The incredible neuroplasticity that characterizes the young, developing mind and allows children to learn so quickly also makes their unconscious minds highly programmable. This is because young brains are particularly sensitive to epigenetic changes, which regulate neural stem cell differentiation; [17][18] also, children between birth and six years of age predominantly operate at low EEG frequencies, characterized as delta (0.5-4 Hz) and theta (4-8 Hz) waves (Figure 4), which put them in a more suggestible, programmable state. [19] This means that experiences very early in life, including the fundamental behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that children observe in their parents, become “hardwired” as neural pathways in their brains and programmed into their unconscious minds. This is why it’s so crucial to provide supportive and nurturing experiences for young children, particularly in the earliest years. Positive unconscious programming during this developmental period results in beneficial behaviors, mindset, and epigenetic changes throughout life. Conversely, negative unconscious programming, such as those instilled by verbally abusive parents and caregivers, results in harmful behaviors, mindset, and epigenetic changes throughout life. As we grow older, our brain waves move toward predominantly higher operating frequencies (i.e., alpha, beta, and gamma waves), which makes us less susceptible to outside programming. This means that reprogramming the adult unconscious mind is relatively difficult; however, it isn’t impossible.


Figure 4. Human brainwaves. [20]



Although the adult brain is much less programmable than the young, developing brain, it still retains some neuroplasticity and still is capable of operating at delta and theta frequencies. Research has shown that “intrinsic and extrinsic epigenetic mechanisms help to maintain adult neurogenesis throughout life and contribute to its activity-dependent regulation.” [21] This means that as adults, we are still capable of building new neural pathways. However, in order for these new neural pathways to become robust enough to become part of our unconscious programming, they need to be consistently reinforced through repetition. Just as a substantial amount of repetition is required for a new skill to become “second nature,” reprogramming the unconscious mind also requires the same amount of dedication. Additionally, the conscious mind, which has the capacity for self-reflection, must be fully present in order for it to stop and correct a preprogrammed behavior as it unfolds. This is why it can be so difficult to “teach an old dog new tricks.” However, through repetitive, conscious intervention in harmful unconscious programs, we can, ultimately, reprogram our unconscious minds and establish new, beneficial habits and mindsets.


Adult brains operate at delta and theta frequencies during different stages of the sleep cycle and during deep meditation. [22] This may offer some additional methods for reprogramming the unconscious mind, such as sleep programming and binaural beat entrainment. Sleep programming involves listening to affirmations and subliminal messaging during sleep. While sleep learning with conscious retention of information has been debunked since the 1950s, recent research suggests that the sleeping brain is capable of absorbing information unconsciously as well as forming new, unconscious memories and associations. [23] This means that, although you won’t be able to learn a new language in your sleep, you may be able to reprogram your unconscious mind by repetitively listening to affirmations during sleep. Although the brain has been shown to operate at delta and theta frequencies during deep meditation in experienced meditators, achieving a state of deep meditation can be very difficult for beginner meditators. Recent research suggests that binaural beat entrainment in the theta wave frequency range (4-8 Hz) may help beginner meditators achieve similar brain activity to that observed in experienced meditators in a deep meditative state. [24][25] Further research, however, is needed to substantiate these claims. Despite this, both of these methods may be worth a try since implementing them doesn’t cost any time or money.


Become Unshakeable through Meditation


In addition to lowering your brain activity to more programmable frequencies, meditation can also make you less susceptible to emotional fluctuations, which can lead to harmful epigenetic changes. At Rise, our meditation system begins with the foundation of all meditative practices – mindful breathing. Mindful breathing cultivates awareness of the breath as well as transient thoughts and emotions. During mindful breathing, attention is focused on the breath – its natural rhythm and the sensations felt in the body as the breath ebbs and flows with each exhale and inhale. During mindful breathing, you must breathe naturally and deeply into your abdomen (as opposed to your chest). As you do this, visualize your breath reaching your lower abdomen. Also, visualize “sending your breath” to various parts of your body and exhaling “negative energies.” Focusing on the breath in this way strengthens beneficial neural pathways and enhances gas exchange in the lungs. Inevitably, thoughts and emotions come in and out of attention while practicing any meditative exercise. When this happens, observe the stream of consciousness from a detached, almost third-person perspective. In the beginning, you may find yourself distracted by these thoughts; however, through consistent practice, you will develop the ability to choose to pay attention to or ignore them. This allows your conscious mind to be more present in daily life and to better intervene in harmful unconscious programming. This ability also grounds and centers the mind, making you more focused and less susceptible to stress and drastic emotional fluctuation and their accompanying effects on health.


Build a Positive Social Environment


Just as your mindset can influence your cellular environment, which regulates your epigenome, your social environment can influence your mindset. At the cellular level, environmental signals initiate signaling pathways within the cell that ultimately determine the cell’s fate. Similarly, external social signals from your social environment initiate system-level signaling pathways that can change your physical and mental state. On one hand, a positive and supportive social environment can help you cultivate an empowering mindset; on the other hand, a negative and toxic social environment can cause you to form a fixed or victim mindset. While engaging in meditative practices, which ground and center the mind, will offer you some protection from negative social environments, you would be much better served to build a positive social environment. This can be done by cultivating harmonious interpersonal relationships and eliminating toxic ones. Harmonious interpersonal relationships can be cultivated by striving to be a positive force in your community and approaching each interaction with the genuine intention of making the other person’s day better; also, nurture relationships with people who motivate you by encouraging personal development and responsibility. Conversely, be aware of and, if necessary, cut off relationships with people who demotivate you by indoctrinating you with insecurity and defeatism.


Key Takeaway


Although your mindset was likely programmed into your unconscious mind at a young age, you can still cultivate an empowering growth mindset as an adult through repetitive conscious intervention in harmful unconscious programming, positive affirmations, meditative practices, and building a positive social environment.



TL;DR


What is Epigenetics?

  • Epigenetics is the study of phenotype changes caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself; in other words, it is the study of “how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” [1]

  • While your DNA determines which proteins your cells can make, epigenetic changes affect gene expression by turning certain genes “on” or “off.” In simple terms, your genome is like a blueprint, a set of instructions contained within each cell to produce all of the proteins the cell may need to function; your epigenome is like the contractor that determines how to use these instructions to produce the specific proteins needed for each cell according to the cellular environment.

  • There are 3 primary mechanisms by which epigenetic changes affect gene expression: (1) DNA methylation, (2) histone modification, and (3) non-coding RNA.


3 Ways to Unlock the Healing Power of Epigenetics


1. Live a Balanced Lifestyle


Diet

  • The foods you eat can cause epigenetic changes directly through the nutrients supplied by your diet and indirectly through your gut microbiome.

  • Toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and trans fats, are another dietary source of harmful epigenetic changes.

  • Consume a balanced, organic whole foods diet, consisting of a wide variety of leafy greens, fermented foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates; these foods will supply you with a balanced nutrient profile as well as natural prebiotics and probiotics that will feed your gut microbiome. They will also minimize your exposure to harmful dietary toxins, such as pesticides and trans fats. Avoid consuming processed foods, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol (although red wine, which contains polyphenols, in moderation, can be beneficial), and antibiotics (unless medically necessary).

Exercise

  • The cancer risk-reducing, anti-aging, metabolic, and cognition-enhancing effects of regular physical activity all have epigenetic mechanisms.

  • Regular strenuous physical activity, including both resistance and aerobic exercise, reduces cancer risk, decelerates aging, enhances metabolic processes, and improves cognition. If you do not already have a regular exercise routine, it would serve you well to implement one. This does not have to be lifting weights or jogging on a treadmill at the gym; it can include any variety of physical hobbies, including hiking, playing sports, practicing martial arts, swimming, etc. Just pick one that you enjoy and stick with it.

Sleep

  • Regulating your sleep schedule can have profound benefits for cognition and metabolism. The most important time for sleep has been found to be between 10PM and 2AM. Adjust your circadian rhythm to align your natural sleep processes with this time frame by avoiding stimulants (e.g., caffeine) in the afternoon, reducing blue-light exposure in the evenings (i.e., avoid bright lights and screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime), reducing fluid intake in the evenings, avoiding heavy foods in the evenings, and implementing a bedtime routine. Aligning your circadian rhythm with the natural progression of time during the day will also allow you to better time your sleep processes. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the circadian rhythm is represented by the TCM body clock.

Exposure to Toxins

  • Avoid exposure to carcinogenic toxins by living in an area with low levels of air pollution, wearing masks that can filter out particulate matter (e.g., N95 or better) in areas with high levels of air pollution, minimizing exposure to gasoline fumes, avoiding heating food in plastic containers (even if they’re labelled “microwave safe”), and avoiding smoking. We can also reduce exposure to these toxins by doing our part to protect the natural environment from air, water, and land pollution.

Restore Balance with TCM

  • Imbalances caused by unhealthful lifestyle habits are often difficult to correct. Fortunately, TCM is a powerful system of diagnostic and treatment principles and modalities that can restore balance to your internal environment. TCM treatment modalities, such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, involve a complex system of interactions with the body. Some of the effects of TCM treatment may be explained by epigenetics.


2. Reduce Stress

  • Modern life is full of internal and external stressors that can trigger the fight-or-flight response, affecting a wide range of systems in the body. When this stress response is triggered, key areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, initiate a stress signaling chain throughout the body, causing a variety of symptoms, such as insomnia, high blood pressure, fatigue, indigestion, constipation, loose stools, insomnia, breathlessness, irritability, reduced immune function, fertility problems, and erectile dysfunction.

  • From a TCM perspective, the same symptoms listed above can be understood in the context of the Five Elements and Internal Organ theories.

  • DNA methylation is “sensitive to environmental stressful exposures in early development and later in life.” [2]

  • Stress may cause dysbiosis in the gut microbiome, leading to harmful epigenetic changes.

  • Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are many strategies, including consuming a balanced diet, practicing mindful breathing, exercising regularly, establishing a natural circadian rhythm, spending time in nature, and cultivating your spirit, that can help you improve your overall physical and mental health and reduce the effects of stress on the body.

3. Cultivate an Empowering Mindset


Reprogram Your Unconscious Mind

  • Mindset is largely controlled by the unconscious mind. It has been estimated that around 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. The unconscious mind controls many processes, including automatic body functions, habits and patterns, beliefs and values, cognitive biases, personality, creativity, emotions, and long-term memory.

  • Many of the components of mindset, such as beliefs and biases, are programmed into our unconscious mind at a young age due to the young, developing brain’s high neuroplasticity and low operating EEG frequencies.

  • Through repetitive, conscious intervention in harmful unconscious programs, we can, ultimately, reprogram our unconscious minds and establish new, beneficial habits and mindsets.

  • Adult brains operate at delta and theta frequencies, which put the unconscious mind in a more programmable state, during different stages of the sleep cycle and during deep meditation.

Become Unshakeable through Meditation

  • In addition to lowering your brain activity to more programmable frequencies, meditation can also make you less susceptible to emotional fluctuations, which can lead to harmful epigenetic changes. At Rise, our meditation system begins with the foundation of all meditative practices – mindful breathing.

Build a Positive Social Environment

  • Just as your mindset can influence your cellular environment, which regulates your epigenome, your social environment can influence your mindset. At the cellular level, environmental signals initiate signaling pathways within the cell that ultimately determine the cell’s fate. Similarly, external social signals from your social environment initiate system-level signaling pathways that can change your physical and mental state. On one hand, a positive and supportive social environment can help you cultivate an empowering mindset; on the other hand, a negative and toxic social environment can cause you to form a fixed or victim mindset.

Key Takeaway


  • Although your mindset was likely programmed into your unconscious mind at a young age, you can still cultivate an empowering growth mindset as an adult through repetitive conscious intervention in harmful unconscious programming, positive affirmations, meditative practices, and building a positive social environment.


References


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