Q: I am 25 years old and will soon get married. I heard that if I become athletic, live calmer, or even if I am stressed out a lot I can pass these behaviors on to my children and grandchildren because they change my genes. Is that true?
A: It sounds like somebody told you about “epigenetics,” and, yes, what you said is mostly true. The new reality of passing along to your descendants traits you acquired in life (before having children) was heresy to scientists only a few decades ago, but it’s on the cutting edge of medicine today. Here is a simplified explanation:
In school you probably learned that genes, made up of DNA, carry unique coded sequences as blueprints for who we are, and that only changes in the code sequence meant anything. All body cells in a person, however, contain the same genes but receive instructions telling nerves to be nerves and liver cells to be liver cells and so on. These instructions are “above the genes” and involve epigenetics. These high-level instructions change upon exposure to influences in our environment (alcohol, tobacco, environmental pollutants, foodstuffs, and additives) and in response to our circumstances (stress, sleep, exercise, gratitude, etc.). The same process causes identical twins to become less and less identical over time, even though both of them have the same genetic code. Epigenetics, as of today, affect how the genes behave—not the genes themselves!
Life experiences and circumstances can flip “on/off switches” on the genes in the eggs of the mother-to-be, the sperm in the father-to-be, or the cells of fetuses in pregnant women. The result is a unique pattern of “on” and “off” genes, much like the patterns of “on” and “off” lights on screens that show different pictures or words. So strictly speaking the genes are not changed; but which genes are activated is what makes the difference. The pattern of switches is then passed to future generations: kids, grandkids, and beyond.
Evidence suggests that cigarette smoking and overeating epigenetically (through the mechanism of epigenetics) cause genes affecting obesity to become “switched on” and those carrying messages for longevity to be “switched off.” In mothers-to-be, drugs (including some medications), tobacco, emotional distress, and lifestyle habits epigenetically affect their children. Epigenetics in fathers-to-be have been associated with autism and appear to account for the illness risk of children fathered by “older” males.
Epigenetics also may explain some of the alcohol-associated brain damage in offspring, and some of the exercise benefits of parents on the health of their children. So be more athletic, don’t overeat, and manage your stress. Prayer, joyful service, and cultivating an attitude of gratitude all may help.
Life molded the epigenetic instructions of our ancestors and we received them. Yet by the way we ourselves live we can alter our own epigenetics to counteract what was inherited and create new traits, good and bad. Please read the Designer’s instruction manual (see Deut. 24:16; Job 21:19; Lam. 5:7; Eze. 18:2; Jer. 31:29, 30).
God created epigenetics; thankfully, His grace is hardwired into the process.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.