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Published on: September 22, 2018
by Tara Swart for Forbes:
The emerging science of epigenetics describes the way our lifestyle and environment influence our gene expression over time. This growing field of research is a hot topic right now because it has radically altered our preconceived views on the nature-nurture debate. The new and evolving science tells us that our gene expression is malleable, influenced by external stressors and lifestyle choices, from running outside to who you have your coffee break with. Rather than having a set genetic blueprint, epigenetics demonstrates that although our genes themselves are fixed, our genetic expression, much of which is heritable, is also interconnected with a wide range of environmental factors. It is this expression, the switching off and on of genes, that gets ‘read’ by cells in the body. This has a huge impact on our health and well-being and on our brains.
Epigenetic influences range from our physical environment: homes, offices, and neighborhoods, to our upbringing and our current lifestyle behaviors. The relationship between gene expression and environment is symbiotic, exactly as the relationship between our brain and our environment is interlinked. The brain is directed by, but also directs gene expression, influencing and altering it constantly.
In short, the ‘environment’ of our bodies, as well as our physical and work environment has a huge influence on our brains. Yet a large proportion of clients I meet neglect fundamental aspects of their physical and mental health, taking their body and brain for granted and convincing themselves they can get away with sub-optimal levels of sleep, poor nutrition, drinking too much, smoking and either lack of exercise, or a punishing fitness regime, without taking a hit on their brain function.
When they stop to think about it, though, the impact on their brain is obvious. Symptoms may range from mental ‘fog’ to inability to make decisions, low-level anxiety that makes deep focus difficult, irritability and lack of motivation. It’s easy to mis-attribute these symptoms to other causes when a few practical changes would solve the problem and restore thinking and brainpower to a healthy level.
Knowing where the starting line is then working out how to win the race is key. By fully harnessing the power of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change) and epigenetics, you can grasp that today is the first day of the rest of your life. If you begin by honoring your body by choosing new, healthy lifestyle habits, making subtle changes to your environment and routine and decluttering negative behaviors and people from your life, you will be set on the path to a brighter future, changing your very DNA as well as your brain.
These changes don’t have to be huge to make a difference: micro-changes are easier to stick to and build up over time, so think about introducing lots of small changes today to pave the way for bigger changes in the future. Here are three ideas to get you started:
Plan your snacks and pack a lunch: to ensure you aren’t tempted to grab something unhealthy or nutritionally-poor on your lunch break.
Swap a roadside run for the gym: Breathing in heavily polluted air reduces the production of BDNF – a brain-derived factor that encourages growth of new cells and connections in the brain. Aerobic exercise in a clean environment actually boosts BDNF production and is more beneficial than oxygenation alone.
Stop going for coffee with your toxic colleague: Your thinking will be influenced by them even if you think you’re immune to their negativity. Find an optimistic, motivated person to talk to instead and see what a difference it makes.
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