The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003 by scientists from many countries, attempted to answer this question. They identified around 20,500 genes and 3 billion base pairs in our DNA, yet were left with more questions than when they started…what triggers the process that turns a cell into a heart cell or something else? Nature or nurture? Apparently, you can nurture your nature!
They found out that the unique sequence of DNA in your genes is present in every single cell in your body – and the same in each cell. it’s how the genes are instructed what to do and when to do it that determines how they are expressed and what they’ll become – a hair, lip, liver or even a heart cell. This information can be thought of as the basic set of inheritable “instructions” for the development and function of a human being.
Enter the science of Epigenetics!
According to Epigenetics, the genes we’re born with comprise our unique Genome, fixed for life. How the genes are influenced – their environment – is the Epigenome (meaning above or in addition to the Genome). It’s like your computer – the hardware is your genes or Genome and the software that directs it, the Epigenome.
So what does this mean in practical terms? What you eat drink, breathe, feel, perceive (good or bad), what you do or how you live, and even where you grow up influences and can change your gene activity. As a result of these environmental (nurture) influences, little chemical epigenetic tags attach to receptors on the cells (the most common process is known as methylation) that tell a cell to use or ignore a particular gene.
It was believed that these tags were erased at birth, but studies like those undertaken at Cambridge University and those from Sweden’s Linköping University and the village of Norrbotton suggest that some epigenetic tags slip though to succeeding generations, influencing behaviour and health.
What’s interesting is that you can potentially activate or suppress these tags through the food and lifestyle choices you make, including sleep. These tags, by the way, depending on your choices, can also signal cells that have genes that predispose them to morph into cancer, obesity and any number of other diseases.
What is interesting is that a person can have one of these “bad” genes like the obesity gene and never experience the condition – thanks to proper nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle choices. In other words, we can influence our genetic makeup and expression – one way or the other.
How does this relate to spa? Spas represent health in body, mind and spirit. Reducing stress – probably the single most important result of your regular spa visits – can be crucial to the positive expression of your genes and, ultimately, make for a healthier, happier you. Epigenetic testing is already in use at some spas and trending in the world of spa according to news coming out of the 2014 Global Spa and Wellness Summit.
Ps. I’ll talk about free radicals or oxidants – molecules constantly being created in our bodies by toxins, sunlight, pollution, radiation, fried food, smoking, etc, etc, etc, that cause damage to our cells – and those much touted antioxidants that protect, and can even restore the health of a cell, in my next blog. Will not touch stem cell research with a ten foot pole, however!
Suggested reading: The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ, David Shenk (2011)