People tend not to carefully consider the ramifications of many of their actions. Scaling a mountain, taking an extra glass of wine, working longer hours for higher pay, etc. In fact, many people have trouble considering what the consequences of their actions will be a year, a month, or even a week later. This is of course why things like gambling addictions are as prevalent as they are. Therefore, it’s only natural that we don’t think of the genetic ramifications of our actions. But new research suggests that those genetic ramifications extend beyond our own lives.
Every individual action throughout our lives is virtually negligible – it’s not like eating that last piece of chocolate is going to necessarily predispose your children to like chocolate. But over a month, a year, and a decade, individual habits and behaviours add up.
The Pacific Standard has a great little synopsis of why your everyday life matters in terms of your genetic makeup:
Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.
As Discover Magazine said, “Your ancestors’ lousy childhoods or excellent adventures might change your personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain.” The article uses an interesting example of a grandmother, whose own experiences and upbringing influence her future generations’ lives:
Our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.
Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too. And for those unlucky enough to descend from miserable or withholding grandparents, emerging drug treatments could reset not just mood, but the epigenetic changes themselves. Like grandmother’s vintage dress, you could wear it or have it altered. The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch: Shake it hard enough, and you can wipe clean the family curse.
This new and promising line of epigenetics research states that your environment can change you, and therefore, your offspring. But the interesting thing I want to take away from this is that you can also change your environment, and change the way in which your future generations interact in theirs.
Even if you have a predisposition to something, you are not a slave to a thin thread of fate. We all have the will and the power to make a difference, however personal or far-reaching that difference may be.
Some of the changes in our lives are beyond our control, but nothing is above us. It’s just a matter of if and when.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”