How our environment affects our genes, by Ebony K. Bailey, LPC MHSP
Have you ever silently wished that your little one came with an instruction manual? Or maybe you just have a desire to be the best parent for your child. Last month, I talked about how trauma can start as early as in the womb. This month I want to share with you the new science of genes: epigenetics. Epigenetics affects us all and its influence is wielded by something that it is all around us: our environment. This environment not only can alter our genetic fate, but also the fate of our children’s genetic health.
Inside the DNA tucked deep within our cells are genes, which issue out instructions to our cells about what to do and when to do it. Let’s look at the genes as mini captains and the cells as the ones who take instructions from the captains: the troops. The genes instruct the cells to make liver cells, to form a mole on the face, to make skin cells, etc.
Generation to Generation
A common misconception is that our inherited genes can not be changed. I thought this, too, until I learned about the study of survivors of the Dutch famine in the 1940s. It revealed evidence that children born to mothers who experienced this event showed higher incidents of heart disease, obesity, and schizophrenia. This shows that factors like emotional stress and trauma can all influence genes among generations.
Silence vs. Activation: The On & Off Switch
When our system is functioning optimally, all of the “troops” are restoring aged cells with new ones and they are following instructions from their “captains.” The genes’s instructions that need to be silenced or activated for overall healthy functioning are flowing and operating harmoniously. Certain genes can be switched on to a healthy state or to a diseased state. These environmental factors can result in the body forming a diseased state; an abnormal expression of cancer genes.
The good news is that our genes have the ability to be environmentally influenced in a healthy way, too, which, can result in the activation of tumor suppression, which would block the abnormal production of cancer cells in the body.
What is interesting about epigenetic research is that it debunks the myth that our inherited genes can’t be changed. Researchers have discovered that not only can they be changed, but that they can be passed down to the next generation. Look at your mental, emotional and physical health as being apart of your inner environment.
So what’s your take away in all of this? For me, the awareness of how one’s inner environment coupled with their outer environment have the potential to shift the gene pool for generations to come.
Ebony K. Bailey, LPC MHSP has been practicing psychotherapy since 2005. She currently serves at the Clinical Coordinator of the Universal Parenting Places for the ACE Awareness Foundation. On a regular basis she meets individually and in group with the UPP site directors to discuss clinical programing that primarily focuses on mitigating adverse childhood experiences through family systems therapy.