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    “DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance” – What Does That Mean for My Life?

    Your Mental Health Toolkit via Actionable Genetic Testing

    Reader, do you believe in fate or choice? Nature or nurture? Determinism or Free Will? How much of this life—your life—can you control and modify… and how much must you leave to chance or luck? These may be age-old questions, but they nevertheless keep many of us up at night. The trouble is, any answer we may pull out of the darkness can feel too amorphous. If it is indeed fate that controls us, then what exactly are we to do? If it’s nurture, how are we supposed to change our emotional and physical environments? Whatever you decide to bring about, your solution is ultimately only as strong as your conviction. Perhaps it is for this reason so many have the Serenity Prayer committed to memory: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can… and the wisdom to know the difference.” Now, I can’t necessarily tell you which aspects of your life you can or cannot change… but in this blog, I hope to shine some light… “wisdom”, if you will… to help you understand the difference. And I want to start by distilling the questions with which I began this blog into one single, specific provocation: “What mechanisms control my wellbeing?

    “DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = X”. You may have noticed over the course of the year that I’ve begun nearly every blog with this equation. In those blogs, these factors have summed up to everything from your brain health, your heart health, and your emotional health, to the structure and function of all the cells in your body. Each provide a piece of the puzzle, but the final sum can best be summed up as: “DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = Your Destiny.” You can’t determine every aspect of these four factors that determine your destiny—but knowing which lifestyle levers you can pull to see a positive change in your wellbeing is a deeply empowering tool. So today, I want to dive into these factors with you, and leave you with the wisdom to understand—and more thoughtfully determine—your own mental-health promoting choices.

    DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = Destiny

    If you’ve been following the blog this year (and our two gene-based series, “DNA: I am Who I Am… Or Am I?” and “DNA: Nurture Your Nature”), then you’re certain to know one thing: The DNA we are born with plays a massive role in our daily lives—from determining our mood to predisposing us to diseases. “OK”, you may be thinking, “surely this is one Dr. Kehr will tell me I can’t change.” The reality is a bit more complicated. While you may not be able to change the fundamental building blocks of your double helix, you can change how your genes express themselves. You can turn some of their functionality on or off, or work around them. If this sounds familiar, it should: We’ve discussed this previously in our posts about “epigenetics”—our ability to change our gene expression through habits and activities. Genetic testing company Genomind suggests we think of each of our genes as falling into three categories: “risk”, “wild-type/average”, and “resilient”. But just because a gene is categorized as “risk” doesn’t mean it determines disease. Through various lifestyle changes, supplements and medications, you can subtly shift this gene’s expression, turn it on or off, to promote a healthier outcome. Genes alone are not the whole story—you could be born with a “risk” gene, for instance, that predisposes you to heart disease, but with the right “Environment,” you can protect yourself for years to come. Likewise, you may be born with a “resilient” gene that protects you from chronic stress—but if you happen to have a high-stress job, that gene can only do so much.

    DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = Destiny

    If our genes could be categorized as “Nature”, our environment would certainly qualify as the “Nurture” side of the coin. Environment can include everything from where we live to who we socialize with… which in turn can influence everything from our hobbies to how we eat. Think “Lifestyle.” Numerous studies have shown, for instance, that the conditions we grow up in have an outsize impact on our adult lives. When it comes to our destiny, how much of our environment can we really control? We can’t control how we were raised—and it’s true that some environments only serve to exacerbate risk genes. For instance, those with a “risk” OPRM1 gene are already predisposed to possible alcohol or drug abuse, and those with an MTHFR variant subjected to childhood trauma develop more severe depressive episodes as adults. If children grow up in the wrong circumstances, these fates can befall them far too easily. And in adulthood, our environment may be constrained by geography or financial concerns. However, when it comes to our ambient environment there may be more we can modify than we think. Take sleep, for example. Sleep is a critical component of our health and mental wellbeing—and some genes can negatively impact your sleep cycles, leaving you with an increased risk of developing obesity, chronic illness, and even Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are lifestyle tweaks nearly everyone can apply that can make a big difference: for instance, exercising regularly can regulate sleeping behavior, as can bright light exposure and certain supplements like magnesium and Vitamin C. Bottom line? You don’t have to let your environment control you. The more you know about your genes, the better informed you will be to make lifestyle choices that leave you with a happier, healthier future.

    DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = Destiny

    DNA and environment contain a complex mix of controllable and regulated factors we can work with. Triggers and chance are nearly by definition out of our control. So, how can we work with them, too, in order to reach our wellness goals? The answer is simple: when the unexpected occurs, knowledge is power. Let’s take stress as just one example. How nice would it be if we could have a perfectly mapped out schedule of when life’s most stressful moments will strike—when suddenly, five things are on deadline and your kid is sick and your car just broke down and the grocery store didn’t have the ingredient you needed…? Of course, we don’t. But our DNA provides us with a map that sheds light on how we are likely to react to stress… and that can help us manage it when it happens. For instance, if you have a specific variant (the Met/Met variant, to be exact) on your COMT gene, you are naturally predisposed to get hit harder by the stress wave. Armed with this information, however, you can make a number of choices that are known to help with stressful situations. The herbal supplement Ashwagandha, for instance, is known to reduce elevated cortisol (the stress hormone), as does Phosphatidylserine, magnesium, and Vitamin D.

    DNA + Environment + Triggers + Chance = Destiny

    For all those who were waiting for one of these factors to be determined as purely out of our control, I must apologize… because knowledge of our genetic code can even help us react to chance situations that happen out of nowhere. If we know we are predisposed to weight gain, we can plan for the “surprise” cupcakes at the office. If we know we have a risk gene that make it harder to come down from an emotional situation, we can be a little more sympathetic with  ourselves when our emotions are feeling out of control, realizing that it’s not us, but our bodies. And finally, “Chance” can relate to random, disease-promoting mutations in our DNA that can predispose to dreaded chronic illnesses such as cancer. Even here, certain diets and nutritional approaches increase or decrease the “Chance” of cancer-causing mutations

    Reader—when it comes to our health, knowledge is everything. And if you really want to take control of your destiny, then knowledge, gained through a simple cheek swab, could be your next step.


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