Archive for June, 2010


We have long known that environment plays a factor in how we develop.  The age old argument in science has long been, “Is this a symptom of an environmental factor or can it be linked to a biological gene / DNA?”  Relatively recently, the scientific community has discovered what most of us have intuitively known all along – that the two are inseparable and somehow linked.

What is epigenetics?  In a nutshell, epigenomes turn on or turn off your genes.  One of the earliest studies that highlighted this biological phenomenon was in 2004 where they studied rat pups whose moms smothered them with attention vs. rat pups whose mothers were neglectful.  What they found was that in the rat pups who got the attention from mom, a certain gene was turned on that produces the molecules in the brain that serve as receptors for the stress hormones.  The more receptors for stress hormones the rat has, the less stress hormones need to be produced by the body, resulting in the rats growing up to be more relaxed, curious, and mellow.  For the poor pups that had neglectful mothers, the stress receptor-producing gene was turned off, and they grew up with a scarce amount of receptors, thus forcing their bodies to produce more stress hormones.  This caused them to be skittish and fearful.  So, while the genes of the two different rat groups were identical, their epigenetics, or expression of their genes, was completely different.  It is interesting to note that the pups that were neglected grew up to be neglectful mothers and those who were given attention and nurtured became nurturing mothers.

The example of the rat pups is just one in many of the power of epigenetics.  There are tons of studies being done that show how the choices we make affect gene expression, particularly in the area of nutrition because it is easily quantifiable, unlike behavior and other environmental factors.  Take lung cancer, for instance.  Cigarette smoke turns off very important genes, such as the tumor suppressor gene and the DNA repairing gene, which is why it often causes lung cancer.  New studies show, however, that eating lots of leafy greens that contain folate as well as taking a multi-vitamin, can turn those genes back on.  Both the cigarette smoke and the greens / vitamins are instances of epigenetics at work.

For so long we have been taught that your DNA is your DNA and nothing will change that.  And that’s the truth – your DNA sequence will not change.  But it’s not nearly as limiting as we had previously thought.  Now, there is hard proof growing daily that the choices we make in life can make a real difference, from how well we handle stress to if we will develop cancer or not.  So, you might be wondering, how do I process this into my real life?  The fact of the matter is that it is too new of a science to completely understand the ramifications of all the choices we make.  However, since intuition told us about the effects of our environment on us long before science came up with a name and studies that prove it, I would suggest following your intuition.  If it seems like a healthy choice, whether it be to eat a healthy diet, or to nurture and give affection to your child/spouse/parent, or to seek psychotherapy to work out an issue that is preventing you from feeling happy or staying healthy, or to incorporate a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation to help regulate stress, then more than likely that activity or habit will turn on the genes we want, and suppress the genes we don’t.  On the flip side, if it makes you or others feel bad, if it’s not healthy, if it holds you back, then it could also be turning on genes you would rather stay silenced and turning off those that are necessary to heal.

Sources:  “Controlling Your Genes” Newsweek, Jan. 13, 2010; http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/

There are many of us at The Listening Center who have been fans of the show Biggest Loser for quite some time now.  We love to watch the contestants change their lives in such a positive manner.  Usually, their experience on the ranch gives them not only their leaner, healthier bodies, but also a new outlook on life.  In confronting their weight issues and making the changes necessary, the contestants are often forced to confront the psychological and emotional issues that are behind their massive weight gain.  The trainers on the show, Bob and Jillian, are good at getting to the root of the contestants’ issues, the core problems of which their weight is just a symptom.  It is this element of the show we love the most, because it reinforces the concept of the Mind – Body connection.  It reminds us, and America, that the two are inextricably linked; that if you address one, it will ultimately lead you to the other.

Jillian Michaels, one of the trainers on Biggest Loser, now has a new reality series, Losing It With Jillian.  The first episode aired last week and it promises to be as uplifting a show as Biggest Loser.  Its format is different, so there is not any of that game playing stuff that goes on in Biggest Loser (the part of the show we like least).  Basically, Jillian moves in with a different family each week and helps them get healthy and make a positive change in their lives.

In the premiere episode, we met the Mastropiestros family of Massachusetts.   All the Mastropiestros’s were overweight, in danger of serious medical issues unless they changed their ways, except for the daughter who had undergone gastric bypass surgery.  (The dad, too, had gastric bypass but it did not work for him.)  And they all had emotional and psychological issues underneath their weight to grapple with and address in order for true change to occur.  The mother and father had to fully confront the death of their son, who died when he was just a month and a half.  The father had refused to talk about him since his death, and it was eating him up  along with his wife because she felt like she was alone in her grief.  The daughter, while slender from gastric bypass, had to confront her inner issues, including a major lack of self worth – issues that gastric bypass cannot address.  What was beautiful about the show was that, with the help of Jillian, they all not only finally began to address these issues and heal them, as well as practically learn  how to lose the weight they need to lose, they also grew closer as a family and connected in a way they had not before.  If the rest of the series is as good as this first episode, then this show could turn out to be even more inspirational than Biggest Loser – and it will definitely highlight the Mind – Body connection.

There is a large amount of research and experts weighing in on the importance of sleep.  In a nutshell, it all boils down to this very simple statement:  “Sleep is VERY important.” With all the information I found on the topic, I will keep this first blog on the subject somewhat general.  Because of its importance, it is a topic that will most likely be revisited again.

Many people equate sleep to a battery recharging.  That is a good analogy on many different levels, but it is also inadequate, because a lot of what happens during sleep has to do with repairing and healing as well, both physically and mentally.  That’s why lack of sleep often leads to illness – your immune system is down because it hasn’t had ample time to repair itself.

One of the easiest ways to understand the importance of sleep is to look at all that goes wrong when there is a lack of sleep.  Sleep deprivation is all-pervasive in its effects on your physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being.  It can cause any and all of the following: impaired judgment (increasingly risky behavior with the less sleep you get); car accidents, sometimes fatal; illness/disease; decrease in reaction time; irritability, impatience, mood swings; inability to concentrate; decrease in learning ability; increase in stress and stress hormones; heart issues such as hypertension and irregular heartbeat; weight gain; hallucinations; adrenal fatigue; being too tired to enjoy the things you love.

Here are some tips to help you get adequate sleep:

1.  Keep a regular sleep schedule.  Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Unless you are a shift worker, keep your sleep cycle in line with the natural circadian rhythm – wake in the light of the morning, sleep in the dark of the night.  As a guideline, try to be asleep by 10:30.

2.  Figure out how much sleep you need. The guideline is 8 hours, and for many of us, that is exactly what we need.  But, there are those who will need 9 or 10, and there are those who will need no more than 6 or 7.

3.  Keep your bedroom cool and dark.

4.  Minimize your exposure to bright lights for at least 2 hours before you go to sleep.

5.  Stay away from stimulants such as caffeine and sugar after lunchtime. Avoid alcohol for several hours before you go to bed.

6.  Drink plenty of water throughout the day.  If dehydrated, your body will respond as though it’s in stress, and stress hormones are “awakening” hormones.

7.  Exercise.  Please note, however, that it is important to be aware of the time of day and type of exercise you are performing.  In general, do all intense exercise before dinner.

Sources: Consumer Reports on Health, 5/10; How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy, Paul Chek; “Importance of Sleep: Six reasons not to scrimp on sleep”, Harvard Health Publications; “Sleep: Understanding the Basics”, emedicineHealth.com, “Why Sleep Is Important and What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough”, American Psychological Association.

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