Bottom Line Up Front: Your behavior will affect your offspring (and their offspring!) through epigenetics. The decisions you make about your health and fitness now will continue through many generations. It is possible you are the product of robust parents and grandparents who did a lot of good things to give you a leg up on life. Are you doing the same for the successive generations?
If you haven’t ever heard of epigenetics, it is a very interesting field that I have found explains a lot. It is the study of how behavioral/environmental factors affect gene expression.
The bottom line is that you are more than just the genes you came into this world with. You are a product of the actual genetic material PLUS the behavior that turned certain genes on or off. An example of this in action is moms who are stressed out during pregnancy have kids who are born with elevated levels of anxiety hormones. This isn’t because they are genetically destined to be stressed like their hair color is destined to be brown. When you consider that your behavior has lasting impacts in this way, it should change how you look at how you make decisions.
I would like you to consider your epigenetic “credit” like a bank account. If you believe you are indeed not just what you eat but what your parents and grandparents ate, you will follow my analogy.
You are like a genetic trust fund kid. Your bank account is stocked up with cash that your grandparents earned. Your parents may have added to it through good behavior or “spent” some of that cash through their bad behaviors. You are born with what is there and it is all you have to start with. Remember that you are going to pass down some of this epigenetic money to your children, so you have to watch how you spend it.
We all know people who eat anything they want (or smoke or never exercise, etc.) yet somehow look good and don’t have health problems. We usually attribute this to “good genes” or them coming from “good stock”. While it is certainly affected by the actual DNA they inherited, it is also a product of good behaviors from their ancestors. But here is the rub – this transfer of epigenetic cash will be degraded for his or her kids if they live an unhealthy lifestyle. Their kids will maybe not have the same ability to eat whatever they want and look good.
See, what happened here is our example father didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. Through his behavior, he has passed on to his son or daughter less cash in his epigenetic trust fund than he was given. I am not arguing our past generations were a bunch of health nuts or were even aware of epigenetics. They didn’t have the potential to make as many bad decisions because their environment didn’t have them.
The world is stacked against us in passing on good epigenetic trust funds to our children. It is far easier and more acceptable than ever before to eat poorly (soooo many convenient and tasty options everywhere), sit around all day in an office job, watch thousands of programs on TV, or spent hours playing videos games and surfing the Internet. Americans get less sleep today than any time before because apparently there is so much to do (refer to Doc Parsley video below)!
Most of us adults had parents and grandparents who ate real food most of the time because IT WAS ALL THAT WAS AROUND. They didn’t stay indoors as children because IT WAS BORING. They walked more places. They played in the dirt. They didn’t use hand sanitizer every 10 minutes and kill their good bacteria. They slept a lot more. They were less distracted (no Facebook, email, texting, etc.).
The takeaway here is that a lot of the people who are from robust relatives are able to get away with poor behaviors. They wouldn’t be able to do this without good genetic and epigenetic traits.
Remember too that not only are your decisions helping or hurting the future generations through epigenetics, your actions are being imitated by your kids after they are born; you are their role model. Do you lead an active lifestyle, make healthy food decisions, and have a strong social life? Chances are so will your kids. Are you an overweight, sedentary smoker who drinks alcohol every day? Chances are, your kids will be too.
Hopefully this brief discussion of epigenetics has led you to consider your actions just a little more before you make them.
QUESTION: Do you think modern Western societies are making it very difficult to pass on strong epigenetic traits? Post thoughts to comments.
- Sleep: America’s Biggest Problem by Dr. Kirk Parsley via RobbWolf.com
- You Are What Your Mother and Father (and Grandmothers and Grandfathers) Ate by Mark Sisson
- Epigenetic Influences and Disease from Scitable: Much more detailed scientific article for the geeks out there.