Nature versus Nurture: How Epigenetics Affects Physical and Mental Health 

By Val Silver

Scientists once believed that in the nature versus nurture debate, nature had the upper hand. Turns out, this isn't so. Thanks to the genome project and the study of epigenetics, it appears that both nature and nurture - the environment your cells live in and your genetic makeup - are both influential, yet it is nurture that actually plays the starring role when it comes to your health.

Rather than nature versus nurture, both shape your personality, talents, and health, but nature and nurture play different roles. Your physical traits are genetically passed down from your ancestors. So are the traits and behaviors that make you human. For example, your brain is wired to initiate specific mental and physical developmental milestones at different stages of life.

What is Epigenetics?

nature versus nurture, genes load the gun, Bruce Lipton quote

The term epigenetics means 'over the genes'. It is the study of how your inner and outer environments affect how genes are turned on and off, or expressed, without changing their actual DNA sequence. This happens when tiny molecular compounds called biological regulators attach to the DNA and its surrounding structures to alter how genes are read. Diet, lifestyle, and our perceptions all exert an influence over our epigenetics. 

Certain genetic factors are meant to be encoded by the environment. Genes can be turned off or on, up regulated or down regulated starting in the womb. For example, conversation plays a critical role in language development before a child is born. A baby born into one culture may have a different cry than a baby born into another culture based on the language patterns of the people around it. 

With the exception of genetic defects and hard-wired heredity, there is really not an argument for nature versus nature because both aspects work together, not against each other. Rather, it is more accurate to say that both nature and nurture that influences your genes and therefore your health.  Within a healthy environment, even 'mutant genes' can regain normal expression.

Your genetic code impacts health and longevity less than half as much as your environment. The genetic code you received from your parents does predispose you to certain conditions, but the environment your cells live in also exerts a powerful influence. This environment is made up of factors including diet, nutrients, hormone balance, toxins, lifestyle choices, your beliefs, perceptions, and mental states. 

The beliefs that "I am who I am and I can't change", or "I'm going to get ___ (fill in name of disease), because my parents and grandparents had it, are no longer valid. From a holistic mind body perspective, this is good news. It means that you have a significant measure of control over your health and well-being. You are not a victim of your past or your genetics, as was once believed. 

In this video, "Epigenetics - How Does It Work?", Dr. Bruce Lipton explains nature versus nurture and how your thoughts and epigenetics influence health and healing.

The science of epigenetics shows that, except in the case of genetic defects, it is cell membranes that run the show, not the DNA. 

Basically, cell membrane receptors respond to signals in their environment. This does not change the genetic code, but it does affect the thousands of ways genes inside the cell express themselves. They can be turned on or off or instructed to behave in a certain way. This can change in a matter of minutes or be passed down to future generations.

Take the example of tumor suppressing cells. Diet can keep inhibitors from turning tumor suppressing cells off and to get them back in view of the cell. When the gene that suppresses cancer is turned off, your chances of getting this disease increase.

This graphic from the National Institute of Health illustrates how epigenetics turns genes off and on. If the gene wraps too tightly to the DNA it becomes inaccessible and cannot be used. Then degenerative diseases can develop.  

epigenetic mechanisms diagram

Nature versus Nurture: Epigenetic Effects on Health

Conventional beliefs about predestined mental and physical health have been turned upside down thanks to the nature versus nurture arguments pertaining to the science of epigenetics and new understandings about the brain.

Research now proves that epigenetic 'tagging' does not only affect the individual, but can continue for generations. This effect has been measured in seven generations of mice and three human generations. This tagging can affect our health, personality, and physical makeup.

Epigenetic Effects on Physical Health

Genetic traits passed down from either parent can be influenced by the environment surrounding the cells and dietary nutrition. How genes express themselves in the body, and thus affect our physical health, are affected by nutrients, toxins, and stress levels. 

Examples of epigenetics affecting physical attributes and health

  • Fruit fly parents who changed color because of the weather pass the change of color to their offspring, not their original color. 
  • Women who develop insulin insensitivity develop more insulin resistant eggs, which affects the insulin sensitivity of their daughters and their granddaughters. 
  • Swedish researchers found that if a father did not have enough food available to him right before puberty, his sons had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. However, diabetes-related deaths increased for children if their paternal grandfather had plenty of food during this time but the risk decreased if the father had more than enough food. 
  • Several environmental chemicals modify epigenetic marks. They include metals, such as arsenic, nickel, and mercury, certain acids, air pollutants, and endocrine disruptors, such as BPA, dioxin, and organic pollutants.
  • Food and nutrients, such as folic acid, vitamin B, green tea, and berries positively affect DNA methylation. Methylation is a continuous biochemical process that is important to most essential processes in the body. Consuming too much alcohol too often impairs methylation, leading to organ pathology. A methyl group can tag DNA to suppress or activate genes.
  • Dietary sulforaphane, found in cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage, helps prevent cancer because it toxic to malignant cells and promotes good health. It also makes cells produce enzymes that promote detoxification of carcinogens and other toxins.  

Epigenetic Effects on Mental Health

Nature versus nurture also shows up in our personalities and mental well-being. The effects of gene expression are not limited to the good and bad substances we put into our bodies. They are also subject to our emotions and the self-talk in our minds. It is true that anxiety and trauma can be learned, but it is also true that these emotions can become encoded in the genes and passed down through the generations. 

It was once believed that our brains developed for a few decades as dictated by genetics and then pretty much stayed the same until declining into old age. Now we know that the brain never stops changing. Human acquire about half our neural networks through heredity. The rest we build by learning new things and have new experiences. We can influence these networks through our free will right up until the day we die. How our brains are wired is as unique as our fingerprints. To a significant extent, brain health is determined epigenetically by what we put in and on our bodies, our stress levels, our perceptions, our sense of happiness and fulfillment, and the experiences we have. 

Stress has been widely implicated as an epigenetic contributor to many illnesses by causing modifications to brain DNA, resulting in neurological problems. Adults who dealt with a lot of childhood adversity are more susceptible to psychiatric difficulties such as PTSD and anxiety because of gene changes related to regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. Adaptogens can help the body mitigate the negative effects of chronic stress. 

Aim for a Holistic Nature and Nurture Partnership

Even though genes are part of your physical body, they are significantly affected by your thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs as well as how you care for your body and your genetics. Your body affects your mind and your mind affects your body, including your genes.

Although no one can guarantee how a cell will express itself, your health does not have to be a nature versus nurture battle. When they work together, good things happen for your health. 

The old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" holds true. The best time to consciously impact your cells is before you begin manifesting disease. 

However, it is never too late to create healthy physical wellness habits along with a mental environment that supports health and encourages your subconscious mind and your genes to express in ways that promote healing.  

Cells living in a healthy environment will be healthier and function better. They can be restored to optimal function when you improve their environment. A well-cared for body makes for a healthier mind, and vice versa. That is what holistic health and healing is all about.

It is your body's nature to move toward healing and wellness when it has what it needs. Nurture mind-body wellness with a healthy lifestyle. Nurture your mind by getting rid of emotional garbage and filling it with life affirming thoughts.  Use your mind to create a healing environment for your cells. Your mind can heal you or it can make you feel or become ill according to your belief. 

When it comes down to it, it is not a matter of nature versus nurture but a partnership of the two. Together they make a powerful combination that affects your well-being for better or worse. You have the power to make them work on your behalf. Do what it takes to encourages health promoting genes to turn on and undesirable gene responses to turn off. 

Believing that genes are what you are stuck with from birth and cannot be changed is a false mindset belief that can harm your health and cause you to make decisions about your health that are not in your best interest. health harming mindset belief. To learn about this and four other misconceptions and how to shift them, get your free ebook and more as free "Thank you!" gifts when you join Val's email community. 

You can take charge of your health and affect your genes for the better.

Continue Reading:

10 Beliefs that Affect Your Health and Well-Being

Sources: What is Epigenetics: Fundamentals

Nature versus nurture page updated 09/2020

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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