Scientists have made some incredible new discoveries on how our minds can literally affect our biology, especially through the study of epigenetics, the branch of science that looks at how inherited changes of phenotype (appearance) or gene expression are caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.
Instead of looking at DNA as the only factor controlling our biology, scientists are also looking at what’s actually controlling the DNA, which includes our thoughts.
We receive genetic instructions from our DNA, passed down through generations, but the environment we live in can also make genetic changes.
One of the more recent studies that explored this concept was conducted by a team led by scientists from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in Spain.
To figure out how long the environment can leave a mark on genetic expression, the scientists used genetically engineered nematode worms that carry a transgene fluorescent protein, allowing the worms to glow under ultraviolet light.
They then put the worms in different temperature-controlled containers to observe how the heat and the cold affected their ability to glow.
When the worms were in the colder containers (20° Celsius), the transgene showed low activity and therefore the worms could barely glow.
However, when they put the worms in a warmer container (25° Celsius), the transgene became much more active, evinced by the worms’ bright glow.
To test the worms even further, the scientists took the warm, glowing worms and put them back in the cold containers.
To their surprise, the worms continued to glow, which to the scientists meant that they retained an “environmental memory” of the warmer temperature, allowing the transgene to remain active.
When the worms had offspring, that memory was actually passed on to their children for seven generations, allowing them to glow brightly despite never having experienced a warmer climate.
To further test their epigenetic capabilities, the scientists kept five generations in a warmer climate of 25° Celsius and then separated their offspring from them, putting them in colder temperatures.
However, the worms still continued to have the highly active transgene for 14 generations. This study marks the longest scientists have ever witnessed the passing-down of an environmentally induced genetic change.
“Worms are very short-lived, so perhaps they are transmitting memories of past conditions to help their descendants predict what their environment might be like in the future,” explained co-researcher Tanya Vavouri from the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute in Spain.
This study was performed fairly quickly, as the 14 generations studied only took about 50 days to develop; however, this still brings us one step closer to understanding how environmental genetic change is passed down in other species, including humans.
Other Research Performed on Epigenetics
More research has shown how our environment can affect the development of our children, our grandchildren, and so on.
For example, Rachel Yehuda, an epigenetics researcher with a special interest in the intergenerational effects of trauma, and her colleagues studied the effects of trauma survivors and their offspring.
Their findings showed that the descendants of Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles than the average human being.
Similar to their parents, the offspring were found to have low levels of cortisol, the hormone that helps your body recover after trauma, especially if their mothers had PTSD.
However, unlike their parents, the offspring were found to have higher than average levels of the cortisol-busting enzyme, which the researchers predicted developed in-utero. This is because the enzyme is typically present in increased levels in the placenta to protect the fetus from the mother’s circulating cortisol.
If the Holocaust survivors had low levels of this enzyme in the placenta during pregnancy, the fetus could be exposed to more cortisol, and therefore develop greater amounts of the enzyme to protect itself.
Another prominent researcher in the field of epigenetics is cellular biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, who has shown how our emotions and overall health can regulate genetic expression.
“Medicine does miracles,” Dr. Lipton said, “but it’s limited to trauma. The AMA protocol is to regard our physical body like a machine, in the same way that an auto mechanic regards a car. When the parts break, you replace them — a transplant, synthetic joints, and so on — and those are medical miracles.”
“The problem is that while they have an understanding that the mechanism isn’t working, they’re blaming the vehicle for what went wrong. They believe that the vehicle, in this case our bodies, is controlled by genes, ” he continues.
“But guess what? They don’t take into consideration that there’s actually a driver in that car. The new science, epigenetics, reveals that the vehicles — or the genes — aren’t responsible for the breakdown. It’s the driver.”
In other words, our minds and our lifestyles are in charge of our health. This can even be applied to many diseases, including cancer.
“It used to be that we thought a mutant gene caused cancer,” Dr. Lipton explained, “but with epigenetics, all of that has changed.”
“I placed one stem cell into a culture dish, and it divided every ten hours. After two weeks, there were thousands of cells in the dish, and they were all genetically identical, having been derived from the same parent cell. I divided the cell population and inoculated them in three different culture dishes.”
“Next, I manipulated the culture medium — the cell’s equivalent of the environment — in each dish. In one dish, the cells became bone, in another, muscle, and in the last dish, fat. This demonstrated that the genes didn’t determine the fate of the cells because they all had the exact same genes.
“The environment determined the fate of the cells, not the genetic pattern. So if cells are in a healthy environment, they are healthy. If they’re in an unhealthy environment, they get sick.”
The way we look at cancer is changing radically, as it’s clear the mind and our emotions play a role in causing, and in some cases, treating it. Louise Hay is a well-known author who discusses the emotional causes of cancer in her book You Can Heal Your Life.
A cancer survivor herself, she cured her disease in only six months using a combination of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy. According to Hay, cancer is simply the manifestation of deep hurt, secrets, longstanding resentment, grief, and/or hatred.
Furthermore, Dr. Lipton actually explains the relationship your mind has to the health of your cells, which relates to cancer:
“Here’s the connection: With fifty trillion cells in your body, the human body is the equivalent of a skin-covered petri dish. Moving your body from one environment to another alters the composition of the ‘culture medium,’ the blood. The chemistry of the body’s culture medium determines the nature of the cell’s environment within you.
“The blood’s chemistry is largely impacted by the chemicals emitted from your brain. Brain chemistry adjusts the composition of the blood based upon your perceptions of life.
“So this means that your perception of any given thing, at any given moment, can influence the brain chemistry, which, in turn, affects the environment where your cells reside and controls their fate. In other words, your thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect on cells.”
This may not come as a shock to you, as the relationship between the mind and cellular health has been studied before. The molecular signature of meditators has been proven to be significantly different from those who don’t meditate on a regular basis.
A study performed at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing compared a group of meditators to a group of non-meditators and found that meditating can have long-term benefits, including improved mental and cellular health.
As a result, meditation, the practice of silencing the mind and looking within, can potentially decrease your risk of cancer. Another study showed that meditation can protect and lengthen telomeres, which are located on the ends of chromosomes.
If your chromosomes are healthy, your cells are healthy as well. Cancer involves abnormal cell growth, so the healthier your cells, the healthier your body.
It’s clear that the mind can have a strong impact on the human body, though we’re still discovering just how much of an impact it can have on our biology.
The great news is that epigenetics is furthering our understanding of the mind’s relationship to the body and how our health could affect future generations. Through experience, the continuous pursuit of knowledge, and raising consciousness, we will gain a better understanding of how our bodies work!