Epigenetics = Empowerment

So why did I end up with an enlarged thyroid at age 41? Have a look at this picture of my mother and me.

 Mom and me thyroid jpeg

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? It was in my genes. I was destined to have a thyroid issue. It was set in motion at my conception. There’s nothing I could have done about it.

Not so. That is the old disempowering view about how genetics affect us—the belief that we are at the mercy of the genes we inherited.

Now we have new information that changes the story. But many people haven’t yet heard the updated version. I hadn’t until my first appointment with a functional medicine doctor.

The new story

Epigenetics. In the most simple terms, it says that we have tendencies in our genes, not predetermined outcomes. I find this a hopeful and empowering concept.

Epigenetics literally means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells ‘read’ genes.”

Why the prefix “epi” meaning “above?” Because the cellular material that governs the patterns we turn on or off sits on top of the genes.

epigenetic tgs jpeg

Image via University of Michigan

To be clear, this does not apply to absolutely every gene. In a recent online summit interview, geneticist Dr. Rudolph Tanzi stated that 5% of our genetics are set in stone. The other 95% of our inheritance is set in clay, which we can sculpt to suit ourselves. We shape these malleable genetics through our lifestyle choices.

Why would we care?

Dr. Jeffrey Bland, mentor to many functional medicine practitioners, is author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life. In a short video, he talks about the significance of epigenetics in understanding the origin of disease. For you and me, it means that our unique genes respond to our personal choices in life. This is what gives rise to our health patterns and our disease patterns. We can personalize our approach to “read the health stories in our genes” instead of the disease stories.

Rudolph Tanzi, mentioned above, has co-authored Super Genes with Deepak Chopra. They write, “You are not simply the sum total of the genes you were born with. You are the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”

Not a sentence to poor health

So the fact that thyroid enlargement “runs in my family” is not a sentence to the same result in my body. I did not have to have an enlarged thyroid just because my mother and her grandmother (below) did.

great grandma sepia jpeg

I didn’t know forty years ago that my choices might be turning on thyroid dysfunction. Or that I could choose differently to change the outcome. In retrospect, i recognize that my eating patterns were similar to my mother’s, and can’t help wondering if that is what turned on the enlarged-thyroid gene.

Although I’ve used my thyroid as an example, the principle of epigenetics applies to much more than thyroid conditions. As Dr. Bland says in the video I mentioned earlier, this revolutionary viewpoint applies to all sorts of chronic diseases including arthritis, heart disease, type II diabetes, and dementia.

As is always the case in science and medicine, the emergence of a new way of seeing things is accompanied by controversy. Some of this has to do with disagreement over definitions, scope, and mechanisms. Some has to do with implications for medical practice and social policy—which moves the discussion from individual well-being to political considerations.

I can appreciate that scientists and politicians have their own agendas and reasons for their responses. However, their agendas are not mine. 

My agenda is to help my body normalize its functioning and do what it’s meant to do. There are many credible scientists and practitioners who see the possibilities for creating health through epigenetics. I choose to apply that approach in my own life. 

That translates into an awareness that what I do makes a difference—what I eat, how much I move, the way I process emotions, and what I think is true. When I choose to act from that awareness, things get better. More about this next time. Until then, comments and questions welcome.

Using it well

Access to functional medicine is a gift. Use it well. Understand its scope, find a practitioner who fits with you, and participate in the process.

4 blog im paradigm pdf to jpeg

In all sorts of relationships, it helps to have a sense of where the other person is coming from. This is particularly important when working with functional medicine doctors because their basic premises are different from those we are used to in conventional medicine. Continue reading

I found it. Thank goodness!

3 blog im puzzle pdf to jpeg

I finally had help, and could actually believe that recovery was possible. This was ten years post-thyroidectomy, eight months after a hysterectomy to remove endometrial cancer, and four months since the internist had advised me that the only answer for my struggling body was to exercise more and eat less—nothing about quality of food, just to count calories. What a relief to have just spent 90 minutes with a doctor who was on my wavelength! Continue reading

Keeping it together…

“True strength is keeping yourself together

when everyone would understand if you fell apart.”  

 -Anonymous


I’ve often thought it’s a good thing my body fell apart when I was in my fifties, not my sixties. If I had been 67, I might have bought into the cultural story that I was just getting old and this was to be expected. However, at 57, I kept thinking This can’t be right. This can’t be normal. Continue reading

I made it!

celebrating making it to 70

Today is my 70th birthday, putting me at the leading edge of the Baby Boomers. We are a huge group on the verge of change—much of it to do with our health. Our biggest challenge is navigating the healthcare culture and coming out intact rather than broken. I have firsthand experience with that, and over the next while I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned.

This is not a blog about tips, though I will give you some. It is not about which experts have the right answers, though I’ll point you to valuable resources. It is really a blog about mindsets and viewpoints that serve us, and what it takes to make your own life when faced with a disempowering system.
Continue reading

Conscious Business. Possible?

I’m a systems thinker, and for a long time have been aware of the dysfunctional nature of the economic system we live in. That’s what prompted me to write a book about navigating the consumer culture without being swallowed up by it.

When I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my view was that the system needed a drastic overhaul. I talked about the work of alternative thinkers such as David Korten, Ray Anderson, Paul Hawken, and Muhammad Yunus.

If I’d known then about John Mackey and conscious capitalism, I would certainly have written about him too. Continue reading

Conscious Spending: A Solution to Stuffocation

Stuffocation-the-feeling

In a BBC viewpoint article about the hazards of too much stuff, trend forecaster James Wallman describes an American study documenting what most of us already know—that we have a lot of things in our houses.

According to Wallman, 2 out of 3 people wish they had less stuff. These people are experiencing what he calls stuffocation—an intriguing word that describes the feeling of drowning in stuff. Not surprisingly, the resulting clutter crisis leads to mental stress, which causes physiological symptoms such as elevated cortisol levels. In this way, the mental stress of excess damages our physical health.

I’m with him until he proposes that we solve the problem of excess stuff by spending our money on experiences instead of things. Continue reading

Serendipity happens, with help!

#1 Where in the world?

#1 Where in the world?

Serendipity is often misunderstood as being a condition in which “things just happen”—good luck that occurs without any effort on our part. This mindset comes from wanting to experience the rewards of life without participating in the process.

Viewed from another mindset, serendipity is a combination of intention, action, and surprise. This viewpoint allows for the surprise of finding something good without looking for it AND requires us to put ourselves into the equation through intention and action.

So how does this relate to a photo of my book among tulips? Continue reading

Holiday. Fun?

With the arrival of December, many people experience angst over the approaching holiday. For some, this has to do with awkward, difficult and/or impossible family relationships, which come into focus under the cultural expectation of family togetherness at this time of year.

However, consumer debt is a more pervasive source of December dread. Yesterday’s news reported on Bank of Canada concerns about increasing levels of consumer debt. The Globe & Mail referred to “insatiable borrowing,” quoting a senior director of Equifax, a major credit reporting agency: “Following a frenzied start to the festive shopping season with more to come in the countdown to Christmas, we can expect the consumer debt to rise even further. Tis the season, so we can anticipate credit cards getting a strong workout throughout December.”

Living in a consumer culture puts us under enormous pressure to spend mindlessly. And our ready access to credit cards has been the marketers’ dream, fuelling the attitude they want us to have: What the heck, spend beyond your current capacity because you can.

Naturally, they love it when we pay their 20% interest for years and years. However, the financial consequences are far beyond what most people imagine. The system is complicated and complex, and there is much we don’t know. Early in my teaching career, I discovered that students generally thought that if they made the minimum payment on a credit card, they weren’t in debt. By using their cards and paying the required minimum, they thought they were doing the smart and adult thing. However, that is an illusion. It takes a shocking length of time to pay off debt Continue reading

Financial Literacy: Crucial for all of us

November is Financial Literacy Month in Canada. This annual event acknowledges the need to educate ourselves in a crucial area of life—how to navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

This initiative came out of the work of a task force that travelled the country to assess the state of financial literacy in Canada.  My submission to that task force expressed the view that all post-secondary students should be required to complete a personal finance course in order to graduate.

I was pleased that the final report of the task force recommended that “…all provincial and territorial governments integrate financial literacy in the formal education system, including…post-secondary education and formalized adult learning activities.”

Realistically, this is unlikely to happen. But Continue reading