Many people believe that they are completely defined, limited and even imprisoned by the deck of genetic cards they were
dealt at birth. You often hear people exclaim that because their parents or grandparents had diabetes, heart disease or some form of cancer, they would be likely to develop the same problems. It’s even worse when people discover that they have some genetic predisposition, like the ‘BRCA’ gene in women that may possibly cause them to develop breast cancer. This makes these women feel like they have no choice but to opt for some medical intervention that can compromise their health or be they may even be coerced into surrendering their vital body parts to surgical mutilation for fear of what “may” happen.
The study of how our diet, stress management abilities and exercise levels affect our genetic expression is called epigenetics. It is this relatively new field of science that clearly demonstrates that we are most definitely NOT at the mercy of our genetic inheritance and we can take steps – easily, simply and sustainably - to protect our health.
Diet and Epigenetics
Routine, healthy lifestyle choices - especially plant-based, whole-food nutrition, stress management techniques and physical activity can dramatically alter how genes function and may reduce our physical deterioration, and morbidity from heart disease, cancer, immune disorders, and depression while even slowing down the aging process. Conversely, risky lifestyle choices can ultimately promote similar disease and breakdown in different people regardless of their genetic backgrounds. Examples of this are the growing pandemics of obesity, heart disease, colon and reproductive cancers in Japan, China and other parts of Asia, which did not exist when those people were eating more of their ancestral, plant-based diets. However as these people continue to saturate their diets with more animal protein, saturated fat, dairy products and refined sugar - similar to people in Western nations - they continue to develop the same devastating chronic diseases despite their obvious genetic differences from non-Asians living in the West.
Remember: Research is showing time and again that a plant-based whole-foods diet is the safest, most health-promoting way to eat. There are plenty of resources on the internet that you can refer to if you’d like to know more about transitioning to this way to eating.
Stress and Epigenetics
Stress management techniques promote well-established epigenetic effects on genes associated with disease and aging. There are repeating units of DNA (telomeres) at the ends of chromosomes that protect and stabilise chromosomes and genes during the process of cell division and growth. These telomeres are like the hard cap (aglet) at the end of shoelaces that protect the shoelace from fraying and falling apart. However, these telomere caps shorten and are worn away by the cumulative effects of cell division as a cell ages and moves toward death. A good way of conceptualising this is if you imagine taking a photocopy of a photocopy – repeatedly - and how the image degrades over time. The enzyme ‘telomerase’ is responsible for the lengthening of telomeres when our DNA is replicated during the growth and repair of cells. And, the shortening of telomeres and a reduction in telomerase are associated with ageing.
Chronic stress promotes shortening of telomeres and a decrease in the activity of the enzyme telomerase. Telomere length and telomerase activity were measured in white blood cells of mothers taking care of chronically ill children and compared to mothers of healthy children. The longer a woman spent looking after a sick child the more stressed she was and the shorter were her telomeres. In the most stressed out women, their telomere shortening and decreased telomerase activity suggested that they had aged at least ten years more than the least stressed women of similar chronological age.
The good news is that the practice of even short periods of routine meditation and stress management activity can dramatically reduce the impact of stress, improve mental health, and reduce the genetic aging process. In one recent experiment, caregivers of dementia patients suffering with symptoms of depression had significant increases in telomerase activity following just 12 minutes of daily meditation for 8 weeks. This increase in telomerase activity was accompanied by improvement of mental and cognitive function as well as a decrease in the symptoms of depression.
Take home message: Visit RelaxationResponse.org/steps for complete (and free) instructions for how to do Dr Herbert Benson’s “Relaxation Response” meditation. It is the most thoroughly scientifically studied form of meditation that has been shown time and again to improve health on all levels, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually – and reverse ageing in various ways including the lengthening of our telomeres.
Exercise and Epigenetics
Exercise creates an epigenetic effect with respect to our metabolism. This can improve both muscle growth and stamina. Exercise has also been shown to promote the genetic production of chemicals that stabilise telomeres and slow down the aging process. Therefore, people who exercise more consistently are more likely to decrease the shortening of their telomeres and have telomeres that are less ravaged by time and aging compared to people who are more sedentary.
In a 2013 study, women who participated in 129 minutes of exercise a week for 6 months, compared to women doing just 21 minutes per week, had 43 genes that showed significant changes. Three of these genes were directly correlated with an increased survival from breast cancer. Patients who exercised longer had a greater expression of tumor suppressor genes, resulting in more than a 60% reduction in the risk of breast cancer death compared to the limited exercise group.
Take home message:
Exercise regularly and mix it up: weight and resistance training, walking and mind/body work – including yoga, tai chi, qigong are all wonderful genetic manipulators!
Finally - Your genetic blueprint can predispose you to any number of positive and negative conditions and changes. But what you choose to do, and the environment that you create on a routine basis in your life, goes a long way to determining how your genetic background expresses itself and whether any of your negative predispositions become concrete outcomes. You don’t have to drown in your own gene pool!
Visit the British Society for Lifestyle Medicine (BSLM.info) for great information on all aspects of healthy living and holistic anti-ageing, and information about how to train to become a BSLM Lifestyle Medicine Consultant.
In this article you’ll learn how to balance your dopamine levels healthily and naturally so that you can regain your zest for life, increase your motivation and improve your mood and overall cognitive functioning.
The 86 billion neurons in our brain communicate with each other via a set of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is a key driver of focus, motivation and productivity. Low dopamine levels can lead to lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings and memory loss.
What does dopamine do?
Dopamine has been called our “motivation molecule.” It has a strong influence on our drive, focus, and concentration. This neurotransmitter is crucial in helping us to plan ahead and resist impulses so we can achieve our goals. Interestingly, dopamine gives us that “I did it!” feeling when we accomplish what we set out to do. It also makes us more competitive and engenders ‘the thrill of the chase’ in all areas of our lives including business, sports, love, and sex.
Dopamine is intrinsically linked to our pleasure/reward system, allowing us to experience feelings of enjoyment, bliss, and even euphoria. However, a lack of dopamine can leave you unmotivated, lethargic, unfocused, and even depressed.
The symptoms of depression are very similar to the symptoms produced by low dopamine levels and they include:
In fact, dopamine-deficient mice in laboratory settings become so apathetic and lethargic they lack motivation to eat and starve to death. Conversely, some people who are low in dopamine compensate with excessive and often self-destructive behaviors to get their dopamine boost. The following behaviours are known to boost dopamine levels – in the short term – but carry a heavy penalty in the long term: These can include use and abuse of addictive substances including alcohol, caffeine, sugar, drugs, and participation in destructive behaviours including excessive shopping, sex addiction, overuse of video games, online porn, misuse of power, gambling, or uncontrolled internet overuse.
How to increase dopamine naturally
Thankfully, we don’t have to resort to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” to boost our dopamine levels. Here are some healthy, proven ways to increase dopamine levels naturally:
Dopamine boosting foods
Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. So, eating a diet high in tyrosine will ensure you’ve got the basic building blocks needed for dopamine production. Here’s a list of foods, drinks, and spices known to increase dopamine:
Supplements that can raise dopamine healthily, naturally and safely
Curcumin is the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric. Curcumin readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can effectively enhance dopamine levels. It has been found to be as effective as Prozac for treating even major depression without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders. Look for a curcumin supplement that contains piperine — a compound found in black pepper that increases curcumin absorption by a at least 2,000%.
Ginkgo biloba is traditionally used for a variety of brain-related problems — poor cognitive function including lack of concentration, poor memory, headaches, mental confusion, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Ginkgo works by raising dopamine along with acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning.
L-theanine is a component found in green tea. It increases levels of dopamine along with two other feel-good neurotransmitters, serotonin and GABA. L-theanine improves learning, the ability to recall information and improves mood. Get a dopamine boost by taking theanine supplements to avoid the caffeine and acidity associated with the tea in its original form.
L-tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine, is available as a supplement, however a better option is acetyl-l-tyrosine, a more bioavailable form that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier.
Phosphatidylserine acts as your brain’s “gatekeeper,” in that it regulates the flow of nutrients and waste in and out of your brain. It can increase dopamine levels and improve concentration, memory, learning, and improve the symptoms of ADHD.
Exercise to boost dopamine
Physical exercise boosts production of new brain cells, it slows down brain cell aging, and improves the flow of nutrients to the brain. It can also increase your levels of dopamine along with both serotonin and norepinephrine.
Dr. John Ratey, the renowned psychiatrist has extensively studied the effects of physical exercise on the brain. He found that exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors. But you don’t need to exercise strenuously to improve your brain health. Taking walks, or doing gentle, no-impact exercises like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong all provide potent mind-body benefits.
Increase dopamine with meditation
It’s been shown that meditation increases dopamine, and the benefits of meditation have been proven in over 1,000 studies. Regular meditators experience an enhanced ability to learn, increased creativity, and deep relaxation. In addition, creative hobbies including knitting, quilting, sewing, drawing, colouring, and DIY — can create a meditative state. Loving Kindness or Metta meditation particularly boosts dopamine – as does cultivating a compassionate attitude towards others.
Acts of kindness
Simply being kind to others, receiving kindness and even witnessing kindness and compassion balances out and improves dopamine levels.
Listening to music can cause release of dopamine
Interestingly, you don’t even have to hear music to get this neurotransmitter flowing. Just the anticipation of listening can do that.
Balance dopamine levels by using your brain’s reward system
Dopamine acts as a survival mechanism by releasing energy when you’re faced with a great. Dopamine rewards us when our needs are met. We love dopamine surges because of the way they make us feel. Our ancestors were on a constant mission to survive. They received a dopamine surge every time they spotted a new patch of berries or a better hunting ground because it meant they’d live another day. Our ancestry aside, there are countless other healthy ways you can enjoy the hunt in modern life. You can forage for new music to download, you can hunt Pokemon, search for specialty ingredients to cook with, scour the web for the perfect pair of shoes to go with that dress. The act of both seeking and finding activates your reward circuits.
The research shows that it takes only 45 days to balance your dopamine levels for optimal functioning – so implement the suggestions above and within only a month and a half you’ll feel happier, healthier, have a brighter outlook, be more goal-orientated and have far better cognitive function.
Jayney Goddard is one of the world's leading experts in the field of complementary medicine and natural healthcare. Her passion is natural anti-ageing; Jayney teaches people how to rewind their biological clocks so that they are more resilient to the diseases of ageing. The strategies Jayney uses are grounded in excellent science and have been shown to halt and even reverse those conditions we associate with ageing.