The age old question of Nature vs. Nurture has been debated for a very long time. It has been a “go to” topic for mainstream media over the years, where once in a while you’ll see a documentary or debate about this question: What determines the course of our development? Is it our genes or is it the environment we live in? This question was even the backdrop of a famous comedy, one of my favourite, “Trading Places”. What determines our state of health, physically, emotionally, mentally?
If you consider that the environment is what determines our health and development then what is the optimal environment? If our fates are written in our genes, then what’s the point of even trying to lead a healthy lifestyle with the hopes that it will create a better than feared-for outcome for our lives?
I think I may have found the answer. And it’s even better than you might think. I came across an article written by David Dobson in the Pacific Standard called “The Social Life of Genes”. Up until now, the way I have thought about the age old question of Nature vs. Nurture, has been to accept that both sides play a role, in some people more and in others less. But Dobson takes it a step further. He starts the article with this: “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. Inside the new social science of genetics.”
It’s a fascinating and well-written exploration of what scientists are now discovering as how our genes actually work. The field of study called Epigenetics looks at how certain interactions with our environment create certain responses from our genes. In other words, we are all born with the genes that we have and they don’t change fundamentally throughout our lives. But different stimuli from our environment turn our genes on or off depending on the situation. I like to think of it as that our genes are all members of a hockey team. They all dress and sit on the bench. And depending on what’s happening on the ice, certain players will be called to go and play while others just sit there and wait.
So it really comes down to the environment that we create for ourselves. One of the main factors in promoting healthy gene expression seems to be determined by our level of threat perception. Dobson writes “When the researchers controlled for variations in threat perception, poverty’s influence almost vanished. The main thing driving screwy immune responses appeared to be not poverty, but whether the child saw the social world as scary.”
So it seems that our conditioned threat perception not only changes how we see a situation, it also influences how our genes respond; to the degree that a perceived threat can cause our immune systems to stop working properly. Or a perceived threat can influence our brain development and organ function.
The sort of environment that we surround ourselves with is the key to influencing how our genes work and affect our levels of energy, our immune system, and even our overall levels of happiness. With the new year approaching and our societal tradition of making resolutions, maybe this year we can make resolutions not only for the sake of making resolutions; Maybe this year we can make resolutions knowing that we will be influencing our genetic expression. How do you plan to take better care of yourself this coming year?
In future articles I’d like to explore the connection between our health and our social life, our inner and outer worlds, and how the nervous system and the spine are the bridge between our health, our genes and how we perceive the world.