Meditate on your DNA – Predispositions & Epigenetics.

Meditate on your DNA – Predispositions & Epigenetics.

– Composed by Rebecca Bourhill and Glenn Nangaku Leisching

Introduction

Is it Nature or Nurture, or both? What is the interplay between your future of pure-potential, and the fixed limitations encoded in your memories and DNA? In this blog we explore recent research into how your genes respond to their environment. Research suggests your genes can be influenced to express themselves optimally, or not at all. Healthy behaviours (such as meditation) can slow, even stop, the ticking time-bomb of a potentially life-threatening genetic inheritance from your ancestors.

Defining predispositions and epigenetics?

Throughout the article, the term predisposition describes an individual’s increased risk of getting a condition based on their genetic makeup that has been inherited from their parents and their ancestral lineage.

These conditions range from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, – the list goes on.

Epigenetics refers to how your behaviour and environmental factors sets the scene, consequently affecting the way your genes express themselves. Epigenetics, broadly speaking controls gene activity without changing the DNA itself.

‘Epi-’ Greek for above. The term ‘epigenetic’ are factors that are ‘above’ or beyond the genetic code – external factors. Epigenetics is the study of how influences or modifications directed at your DNA regulate whether a gene is activated or not. These changes, in the form of chemicals, attach to the DNA genome, creating a ‘tag’. This tag – called the epigenome – does not change your genetic sequence itself. Rather, the epigenome affects the expression of your genes.

The good news is therefore, that because epigenomes (and their affect on gene expression) are influenced by lifestyle factors, chemical exposure and medication – all of which are controllable. Therefore, you can have a profound affect of your genetic expression!

The ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ in your genetic field

Let’s use the metaphor of yourself as a computer consisting of hardware and software. Your genome – what makes you, you – would be considered ‘hardware’…the unchangeable, inherited, part of yourself – your predispositions for different conditions and physical characteristics.

Now, what is exciting is that you have the ability to turn these gene predispositions ‘on’ or ‘off’ using lifestyle choices, or in keeping with the computer metaphor, ‘installing’ the correct, useful ‘software’ or ‘programs’ to create a positive outlook and keep harmful genes dormant.

Not only can you nurture or cultivate positive ancestral predispositions, you have the ability to dial the volume down on all the negative potential in your inherited nature.

The opposite is also true. Installing harmful ‘software’ will increase your chances of triggering genes that are potentially dangerous or life-threatening. Studies are showing that epigenetic changes (that are altered by lifestyle factors) can be passed on from generation to generation.

This essentially means the buck can stop with you! The changes you make today will influence the health of future generations.

Nature & Nurture: Influencing the outcome of predispositions

Identical twins, for example, inherit the same DNA, however, they can turn out to be vastly different from one another. At the age of say 55 one can get heart disease while the other can be running marathons in perfect health. Part of the answer to this lies in the way they have nurtured their genetic make-up by turning certain genes on or off.

Nature would be the genes the twins inherited – what has been passed down to them from previous generations. Nurturing is how one feeds or starves these genes. In one’s external world, pollutants, chemical exposure, diet and personal lifestyle choices encourage positive changes and impact on the epigenome. Your holistic choices in the form of dietary changes, increased exercise, stress reduction through meditation, and habitual changes, big or small, can determine which path your health takes.

A relatable example of smoking can be used to illustrate. If you have a predisposition for cancer you turn the cancer gene ‘on’ by feeding the fire. However, stopping the habit of cigarette use can immediately start reversing the damage caused. A similar model can be applied to sugar addiction with those who have a predisposition for obesity or diabetes.

Meditation: Between stimulus and response there is an opportunity!

Meditation can have a significant influence on your epigenetics.

The practice of Zen meditation for example, creates a moment of consciousness and space between whatever the stimulation may be and your habitual response. In the smoking example: the stimulus or trigger could be stress at work or a negative emotional experience. Often a smoker’s immediate response to the trigger or stress is to have a cigarette. The practice of Zen meditation develops mindfulness – awareness of unconscious, patterned behaviour. This awareness has the power to momentarily interrupt the stimulus-response cycle and affords youf the opportunity to choose a healthier, more empowered and self-aware response to the stress or what triggers you.

Conclusion

A daily morning practice of meditation sets the scene for the rest of your day and exercises your mindfulness muscles. In a highly charged situation taking a ‘mindful-minute’ helps you become present and aware of the trigger (stimulus) before immediately responding. Mindfulness can take the form of grounding yourself either through following the breath in and out and feeling the sensations in the body of your breath, or feeling your feet on the ground.

Beside the many other benefits of meditation and mindfulness, their practice gives you an opportunity to reprogram your software to make unscious behaviour more conscious thereby allowing time to consider whether your habitual response is helpful or harmful. Meditation supports these little pauses and provides the necessary space that help enhance positive behaviour or break negative programming which have a significant influence on the expression of your genes.

References

Nerlich, B. 2018. Epigenetics: Grappling with definitions.

Epigenetics: Grappling with definitions

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2022. What are Epigenetics?

Guerrrero-Bosagna, C. 2017. TED-ed. What is Epigenetics?. YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aAhcNjmvhc

Experiencing Depression? How Meditation can help.

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Composed by Rebecca Bourhill

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Introduction to Depression.

Depression is a worldwide problem that can occur at any age. Although more common in people in their 30’s and 40’s, depression is now reaching our younger population due to various factors discussed later in the blog.

Depression drains the life-force from your body, leaving you with little to no energy, lethargy, deep sadness, despair, and hopelessness. If not addressed, extended bouts of depression can cause an individual to be house-bound, secluded, and with chronic health-related conditions.

There are many different forms of depression ranging from chronic mild depression to more severe major depressive disorders like manic depression or bipolar disorder.

Although the exact causes of depression are not known, there are three components that are known to contribute to its development. Factors include chemical or hormone imbalance, genetics and trauma.

Importance of applying Buddhist practices such as mindfulness, compassion, and empathy have been shown to have numerous benefits for mental and emotional well-being.

Also read: Convalescence and Meditation and Masking – How to unmask and uncover the true you


The Origin of Depression: chemical explanations; trauma; and genetics.

Chemical

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by nerve cells in the brain to communicate between neurons. In states of depression three primary neurotransmitters are out of balance.

The first is Dopamine. When an individual reaches a milestone, gets a work promotion or accomplishes a goal, dopamine is responsible for the ‘happy feeling’ that pulses through the body. Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical.

Second, norepinephrine – the fight/flight chemical, if constantly raised due to long or regular exposure to trauma, an individual will tend to live in a state of hypervigilance in preparation for the next trauma inducing event to happen.

The third chemical is serotonin, known as the “feel-good chemical”. If there is an imbalance of serotonin, which can often be the case in depression, SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are sometimes used to increase serotonin levels. Not only is this chemical responsible for one’s mood but it also plays a role in other important body functions.

Although it was thought that low levels of these neurotransmitters were the primary cause, research is showing that there are other factors that can bring about depression.

Trauma

A traumatic life event can trigger a depressive episode, along with anxiety. Extended periods of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) caused by trauma, creates a continuous negative thought pattern which can lead to depression. Symptoms of both depression and PTSD overlap and often exist together.

Genetics

Another relatively recent field of study is intergenerational trauma. Evidence is emerging which shows that trauma can be passed from one generation down through the next five generations. 

A well-known study of intergenerational trauma using children of Holocaust survivors was published in 1966 by a Canadian psychiatrist. In the article children of Holocaust survivors had an increased likelihood of depression, PTSD and anxiety. Trauma from the Holocaust created a change in the survivor’s genetics due to heightened exposure to the stress hormone cortisol. These genes were passed down to offspring.


Meditation and depression: How the brain responds to meditation

Although the practice of meditation can be traced back in time for many thousands of years, it is only recently that it has become a widely acknowledged tool to manage depression, anxiety, and mental health challenges.

The question needs to be asked: “Why or how does meditation help depression?”

To help understand how the brain changes during meditation, we look at the brain’s neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences and environmental changes.

In order for the brain to adapt and change, new neural pathways need to be created. Originally believed to only happen in childhood, it has been proven that new neural pathways are created throughout one’s lifetime. During bouts of depression, the creation of new pathways are disrupted. This is where meditation comes in.

Meditation can not only stop these depression induced pathway disruptors, it is now known that meditation can help rewire the brain and create new neural pathways. These physiological pathways created through meditation enable us to regulate and manage emotions more effectively by changing the structure of the brain’s hippocampus which controls emotional regulation and in the amygdala which manages our flight/flight responses to signs of danger in our environment.

Chemically, meditation reduces cortisol levels. High levels of stress can lead to stress-induced depression. Ultimately, lowering cortisol levels through meditation may reduce the risk of depression.


Meditation as a tool to manage depression

Through meditation we learn to observe our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations without reactivity. Through meditation, the meditator is able to interrupt the unconscious stimulus/response cycle. Learning to recognize, acknowledge and let the stimuli – the thoughts and feelings go and detach from them can help break the cycle of uncontrolled reactive responses.

Having a single focus for the mind, either the breath or a physical sensation, gives you an anchor to come back to when distracting thoughts or emotions arise. Meditation creates space between stimulus and response patterning helping you respond to stressful, emotionally charged situations in new, creative and potentially healing ways. By being able to return to a grounded and centred state we are able to respond from a state of calm instead of from a place of defence or panic.

Extra reading: The Path of Compassion


Conclusion

Depression has become a common mental condition through the world. It occurs in all ages, races, and cultures. The common causes of depression are known to be chemical imbalance, exposure to trauma, and inherited genetic dispositions. There is a growing field of response to help alleviate the consequence of depression in one’s life, work and family constellations. Psychological and psychiatric therapies, natural medicines, diet, and physical exercise are all know to help.

Born as the Earth School, a Zen School of the Heart, offers several free training programs related to meditation, authentic communication, and Nature Based Wisdom Teachings (NBWT) to help you or someone close to you manage the effects of depression.


Referencing

Schimelpfening, N., (2022), The Chemistry of Depression, Very Well Mind,

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-chemistry-of-depression-1065137

Iliades, C., (2016). How Trauma can Lead to Depression. Everyday Health,

https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/how-trauma-leads-to-depression.aspx

DeAngelis, T., (2019). The Legacy of Trauma, American Psychological Association,

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-

trauma#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20first%20articles,14).

Coelho, S., (2022). Cortisol and Depression: What to know, PsychCentral,

https://psychcentral.com/depression/cortisol-and-depression