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For years, we’ve believed it’s all in our genes—that a predetermined and unalterable genetic makeup would set us up for obesity, disease, and premature aging. Now, emerging research is showing that’s not the case. What we’re learning: Almost all of our genes may be influenced by the foods we eat. In the words of Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi in Super Genes (Harmony, 2015), “You’re not just the genes you were born with. You’re the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”
It starts with DNA, the genetic code that determines all the characteristics of a living thing. DNA is packaged into chromosomes that contain all of our genes—sections of DNA that include the instructions for making the proteins our bodies need to function. But DNA isn’t a rigid, indelible code, as was once thought. Instead, new studies are finding that nutrients in our food profoundly affect gene expression—the process by which information from a gene’s DNA sequence is translated into a substance, like a protein, that’s used in a cell’s structure or function.
We’ve known for years that degenerative diseases (and the aging process) all involve some kind of damage or impairment to DNA. This damage can come from toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke, UV rays from sunlight, radiation (such as X-rays), and even byproducts of the body’s normal metabolic processes. DNA gets damaged throughout life, even tens of thousands of times a day. The cells are able to repair most of this damage—in most people, fairly efficiently through their 20s. But as we age, DNA damage accumulates and can cause serious problems including cancer and other diseases.
The good news is that no matter what your genetic background, you’re not doomed to suffer the same diseases as your parents or grandparents. There are many things you can do that impact gene activity and help protect and repair DNA. Here’s what the studies show:
Get Enough Sleep
Inadequate shut-eye has been linked with lower DNA repair and more breaks in DNA—explaining the increased risk of cancers and neurodegenerative diseases in people who are sleep-deprived. And it’s not just a lifetime of insomnia. In one study, researchers found that just a single week of insufficient sleep altered the activity of more than 700 genes.
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