It’s not genetic: can you really change your genes?


When it comes to your health, the climate you live in and the friends you keep may affect your genes more than your DNA.

Last week, I blogged about the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine, concluding that genetic testing may hold the key to a promising future; one which seeks to prevent ill-health by testing patients for genetic predispositions.

Genetic testing came into the spotlight three years ago, when the actress Angelina Jolie, announced she had undergone a double mastectomy because she carried a faulty gene which increased her risk of breast cancer by 87%. Genetic testing was used to screen the actress.

Since then, a new field of genetics has emerged, challenging the status-quo behind traditional gene theory. Epigenetics (‘epi’: greek for ‘outside of‘) looks at external factors beyond our DNA, such as food, exercise and climate, and their ability to activate our genes. Epigenetics suggests we can control how our genes work, through lifestyle choices.

In order to understand how, it’s important to consider the role of our genotype and phenotype – similar in sound, not in nature.

The genotype represents information contained in your genes that gives you the traits you are born with. It is responsible for your hair and eye color, shoe size and/or certain diseases. It represents anything which can be inherited.

The phenotype represents what genes are currently active at any given moment in time. For genes to be active they must be triggered by something. In epigenetics, that something could be exercise, food, friends or the weather. Classifying one’s environment as a genetic factor was unheard of when the human genome project was first launched in 1990, yet the implications of doing so, are wide.

Your phenotype is adaptable, gene expression can be altered within moments of exercise. Your genotype is set in stone.

Secondly, measuring of the genotype only provides a historical view of your genes and genetic predispositions, whereas the phenotype measures what genes are ‘switched on’ here and now. This, in turn, can deliver important information regarding our hormones (which are dominant, which are not) and which enzymes are active.

Measuring the phenotype is, therefore, useful in a number of ways. For example, in a day where vegan, paleo and ketogenic diets battle it out for your grocery dollars, phenotype testing identifies if you’re even capable of digesting large quantities of a given food, based on your enzyme activity. It eliminates the guesswork, and months of potential suffering.

So is epigenetics worth the hype? Do you have the power to turn a negative into a positive when it comes to your genes?  Traditional gene theory would say we are ‘born with it‘, epigenetics thinks not.

As always, pushing for health.





Photo credit: