A patient of mine was very interested in having her genes tested. Having been adopted, she felt the findings could give her more insight into who she was, and possibly what health risks she may need to be aware of. When I asked about the results, she took a deep breath, shook her head, and with a slightly frightened tone, said, “It’s not good.” She continued, “I have a breast cancer gene and the gene for Alzheimer’s.” I responded by asking her… now what? She told me that her doctor said that it was good for them to know that information, and that she needed to “eat a healthy diet” and “get on a regular exercise program.” Ahhhhh… great medical advice. But wait! If she did not have those troublesome gene variants, would that mean she could eat whatever she wanted and skip the exercise?
There are some things you must know about your genes and gene testing. The first is that way too many things are getting blamed on genes. We are in an age when chronic illness is at an all-time high. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a whole bunch of other conditions have skyrocketed over the past 50 years. If I drew a line on a graph indicating the incidences of chronic illness, you would see that it has gone straight up over the past several decades. If I drew a line on that same graph indicating how much our genes have changed, it would stay perfectly straight across… indicating no change. Why? Because our genes haven’t changed in thousands of years. Something is responsible for the huge increase in chronic illness, but because our genes have not changed, we instantly know that our genes can’t be blamed.
The second thing to know is that you can have a breast cancer or Alzheimer’s gene and not get breast cancer or Alzheimer’s… and you can get breast cancer or Alzheimer’s even if you do not have those genes. In fact, less than 5% of all cancers are considered “genetic.” Most people are unaware that genes do not tell the whole story. Having bad genes does not mean you are doomed. Conversely, though, getting a report that you have no gene variants or defects does not mean you get a pass on future conditions and diseases.
Most people are also unaware that our genes can be turned on or turned off. This is why you can have a cancer gene, yet never get cancer. If that gene is not expressed, it can have no bearing on your health. So, the last thing I want to note about genes is that the expression of your genes is dictated by the environment and your lifestyle. I’m amazed that this fact isn’t highlighted and emphasized more. You can’t control what genes you have, but you can have a huge influence on how your genes are expressed. For more info on this, you can look up the word epigenetics. Epigenetics is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” Simply put, bad genes do not mean bad health. You have a say in the matter.
I am not against the study of genetics, and I believe there will be advances made in the field of genetics that will have a positive effect on some health conditions and diseases. But I also know that our genes are not our destiny. And to date, the breakthroughs we have had in regards to our understand of, and ability to test for, genes have not had a significant impact on the continued increase in chronic illness.
While that doctor did give my patient incredibly good advice… eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly… a ten-year-old in the fifth grade likely knows this. No matter if you have great genes, or terrible genes, making healthy lifestyle choices (i.e., eating whole real foods, doing daily physical activity, getting ample sleep, managing your stress levels, engaging in meaningful work, surrounding yourself with loving and caring relationships, and avoiding environmental toxins as much as possible) will have the most impact on your level and quality of health.
Genetic testing is a slippery slope. My patient already knew she needed to eat better and exercise more. I guess if finding out that she had some bad genes motivated her to live a healthier lifestyle, then it was worth it. However, she did not change her lifestyle, but now has the added stress of knowing she has the genes.
Remember… your genes are not your destiny. What you eat, how much you move, and how you live will have the biggest impact on whether you get sick or stay well. This is super exciting… to know that we have so much control over our destiny and that we can stop blaming genes for every problem in our lives.