Changing Crooked Genes

Gene expression behaves like a dimmer switch. It can be turned up or down.

Most of us think genetics is fate.  We think ‘tough luck’ if some of our genes are programmed to make us stressed, depressed or seriously ill.  It turns out that it’s not so. We have the capacity to change gene expression in ways that can change our life in amazing ways.

Especially the Stress Gene

Reprogram the stress gene to extinguish stress reactions and higher order brain networks will expand  to  sustain peak performance at work and make you a more peaceful, happier person at home.  In addition, your biochemistry will begin functioning in ways that prevent chromosomes from generating cancer cells and causing premature aging.

Genes Can Be Reprogrammed

Genes can be reprogrammed through something as simple as a basic shift in attitude or change in life style.  It’s the discovery in a field of genetics called epigenetics that has identified a biochemical code carried in our DNA called epigenome.  These codes acts on genes like a dimmer switch.  They can turn down the power in genes that make  life difficult and turn up the power in those that make life wonderful.

What Turns Up the Power in the Stress Gene?

Researchers recently found evidence of this genetic feature in the brain tissue of people who were abused in childhood and later committed suicide.[1]  They found changes in the DNA expression of a gene that regulates the way the brain controls the stress response, intensifying stress reactions and short circuiting the brain’s capacity to calm these reactions.  As a result, the history of abuse made these people more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.   The environment of abuse had turned the stress gene way up, locking the brain into threat mode and generating a chronic state of stress.  It made their lives unbearable.  This unfortunate gene expression was not found in postmortem brain samples of people who had no history of childhood abuse.

Twins provide another example of how life experience can affect the manner in which DNA expresses a trait or tendency.  At birth, identical twins have identical genes.

What Turns Down the Power?

However, as time goes by, one twin can develop psychiatric problems or cancer while the other does not.

Studies show that as twins age, their epigenomes express differently, based the choices they make. As a result, their lives turn out differently.

In the case of the stress gene, its expression can be changed to enable the brain to regulate the stress response system more effectively.  In one study of men with prostate cancer, researchers found that a three-month program involving a healthy diet, moderate exercise and daily stress management had the effect of turning up 48 genes and turning down 483 genes. [2]

Love and Gene Expression

It appears that love can also activate epigenomes. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford relates a story about a boy who was severely abused, emotionally and physically.[3] After he became a ward of the court it was discovered that he had zero growth hormone in his bloodstream. Chronic stress had completely shut down his growth system, to the degree of threatening his life.  He was hospitalized, and over the next two months developed a close relationship with his ward nurse —undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever experienced.  To everyone’s amazement, his growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal.  When his friend, the nurse, went on vacation the boy’s levels dropped back to zero.  Interestingly, it rose again immediately after her return.”

“Think about it,” Sapolsky commented. “The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world.”  Clearly, the relationship we offer one another plays a role in determining the expression of genes that govern how long and how well we live.

“The thing I love about epigenetics,” says Dr. Randy Jirtle, Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, “is that you have the potential to alter your destiny.” [4]


[1] “Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse.” Patrick O McGowan, Aya Sasaki, Ana C D’Alessio, Sergiy Dymov, Benoit Labonté, Moshe Szyf, Gustavo Turecki & Michael J Meaney. Nature Neuroscience Published online: 22 February 2009. doi:10.1038/nn.2270
[2] Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention,  Dean Ornish, Mark Jesus M. Magbanua, Gerdi Weidner, Vivian Weinberg, Colleen Kemp, Christopher Green, Michael D. Mattie, Ruth Marlin, Jeff Simko, Katsuto Shinohara, Christopher M. Haqq, and Peter R. Carroll PNAS 2008 105: 8369-8374.
[3] Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Devastating Effects of Stress on Children,” Keynote address, Brain Connection to Education Spring Conference, San Francisco (May 11–13, 2000):
[4] Epigenetics: Study of Lifestyle Choices and How They Alter Gene Behavior. Amber Dance, Special to The Los Angeles Times,,0,2006517,print.story, Tuesday, May 4, 2010