Is your health and weight a matter of luck or lifestyle?
When it comes to the scale, it’s easy to blame being overweight on one’s genes. We hear people say it all the time, “I’ve always been overweight. My family is overweight. I just have bad genes.” Sure, your parents gave you your genes and DNA, but it’s unfair and incorrect to place all the blame on them. While our genes do provide the blueprint for our bodies and health, there is now ample science emerging from the field of Epigenetics (“The study in changes of organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself” or more simply put, the study of what will switch genes on and off) which strongly suggests that external lifestyle factors and individual choices influence how one’s genes are activated. Thereby, determining the expression of various weight and health issues. In fact, it is estimated that 98.5% of gene expression is determined by environmental factors (nurture) rather than one’s genes (nature).
This is great news for anyone who has always bought into the belief that their genes are to blame for their weight issues because it means your DNA is not your destiny! Genes are not fixed, but rather fluid and ever-changing, literally responding to everything you think, feel and do. Thus, you are able to take back control over your health and body through your lifestyle and daily choices. The reality is that gene activity can change quickly as a result of a number of factors including: stress, diet, exercise, sleep, emotions, chemical exposure, substance use, medication and social interactions.
Here are three changes, in addition to exercise and proper nutrition, that you can start to make today to help your genes work for you rather than against you.
1. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. concluded that simply one week of mild sleep deprivation (6 hours instead of 8 hours) affects the function of 711 genes, especially those linked to inflammation and stress in the body. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been associated with depression, cognitive and memory deficits, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Getting a good night sleep is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health and lose weight. Most people don’t realize that poor sleep is associated with an increase in BMI and ghrelin, the hunger hormone that tells you to eat. Fortunately, there are lots of small changes you can begin to make to help improve your sleep starting tonight.
2. Practice Mindfulness of Thoughts
Your mindset matters… A LOT! The thoughts you think handle the control switch of your mind and body’s experience of stress, which goes on to determine which genes get turned on and off. It’s estimated that stress is the cause of 95% of illness and disease. Stress can also be a major weight-loss blocker due to chronic levels of the hormone cortisol which contributes to a decreased metabolism and an increase in fat storage. As long as your brain is in fight-or-flight mode because it thinks you’re in danger(stress), then chances are high that you’re going to struggle to lose that stubborn weight.
According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, “Your own beliefs are selecting your genes, and if you don’t have the right genes to handle the stress you are in, then your belief will rewrite your genes in an effort to do so.” Therefore, the most important way to help your brain to think it’s not in danger and safe to release weight is to work on what you think! Sounds simple enough, but often it seems that our minds and thoughts happen to us without our being able to control them. It’s what we think about the situations, people, and experiences in our life that causes our experience of stress. Changing your thoughts can result in changes in your genes and stress. Easier said than done… or is it?
A strategy to help you get started on improving your thoughts is to practice mindfulness, or awareness, of what is in the moment. Often our stress-inducing thoughts are about things that have already happened in the past or worrying about what’s to come in the future. Our minds get stuck on thinking loops that are “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” or “what if’s” and worst case scenarios. The moment that you observe you are past or future thinking, you immediately become mindful of what is and are able to change the thought(s). Take a few deep breaths and redirect your awareness to what is unfolding in the present moment. Pick a more neutral or optimistic thought…
Give gratitude for what is before you and think to yourself, “In this moment everything is alright” or “Everything is working out for me, better than I can even imagine.”
3. Attend to Inflamed Emotions
Studies have shown that anger, hostility, and shame are associated with increased circulating markers of inflammation in the body. These are the same markers that turn our genes on and off. If you have repressed negative emotions, and most of us do, then chances are this may be contributing to chronic inflammation, which wears down your immune system and makes it less capable of repairing itself. Repressed anger is also one of the most common subconscious weight loss blockers that I encounter with the individuals I work with. Frustration and resentment with parents, family, peers, and partners can remain buried deep in the psyche driving our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the now.
It’s time to get honest with yourself about the things you’re feeling angry, resentful, guilty or shameful about. Write a list about everything you feel negative emotions about starting with early childhood. Journal about each or find a therapist or coach who can help you to process them. Give yourself permission to feel these emotions fully. It’s okay to feel anger, that doesn’t mean you are an angry person it just means that you are human. Once we fully acknowledge an emotion we are feeling and why then we are able to process and release it rather than repress it. Repressing negative emotions does not make them go away. They will fester and manifest in the body in physical and mental symptoms until we face them. As you let go of the “emotional obesity” of the weight of the emotions you’ve been carrying around, often the physical weight seemingly melts off.
While working on releasing the negative emotions, it’s just as important to be focusing on enhancing your experience of breadth and abundance of positive emotions. This has been shown by studies to actually lower inflammation in the body! Activate the power of positive emotions by having more fulfilling social connections, getting involved in an organization or purpose that fills your soul, finding a hobby or activity that you enjoy, or watching a funny movie or show. Even better, just try to smile and laugh more. Science shows that smiling can lift your mood, lower stress and boost your immune system. Even faking it can legitimately spur a chemical reaction that will release our brain’s feel-good hormones. Besides, a smile is the best accessory you can wear so you might as well put it on all the time.
Remember, your next meal, your next mood, your next thought, your next choice is modifying your body and genes in an endless flow of change. Your body and genes are responding to everything you think, say, feel and do. Get intentional about making improvements to your daily lifestyle choices and witness with delight how your overall wellbeing and health improves.