We live in a high-stress world filled with processed foods and environmental toxins, where the couch is infinitely more alluring than the treadmill and sleep is regarded as an optional activity.
But our genes weren’t designed to support this way of life, and this incompatability threatens our health and well-being.
So says Mark Pettus, MD, chief of medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, N.Y. and author of The Savvy Patient. On Saturday, Dr. Pettus spoke about the health hazards of this interplay between genetics and the environment at the Scleroderma Foundation’s educational forum.
According to Dr. Pettus, our genes – what he calls our Book of Life – were written to allow us to live healthfully in the Stone Ages. When we eat foods that are not natural, we put our immune systems on high alert and trigger inflammation in our bodies. The same thing happens when we expose our bodies to toxins like mercury, lead and arsenic, when we resist our natural inclination to move and be active, and we don’t get enough sleep.
Among the worst saboteurs of good health? Stress. The fight-or-flight response, he says, was designed to protect us from tigers on an African savannah, not to respond to our anxiety about high bills, bad marriages and job loss. When the stress response is active all the time, we live in a state of chronic stress, which again, puts our immune system on high alert.
The interaction between our genes and the environment is rapidly gaining attention in a field called epigenetics. Epigenetics says that our environment can affect our genes, so that our destiny is not in our DNA alone, but also in the way we eat, the toxins we encounter, our ability to handle stress and how much we exercise. Some experts believe that epigenetics may eventually help us identify the the environmental causes of various diseases and disorders, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and obesity and — and lead to the development of new treatment.
So what can we do to ensure better health? Dr. Pettus urged listeners to eat more plant-based, low-glycemic foods, and to avoid processed and refined foods, a message I reiterated many times in my own book, What to Eat for What Ails You. He spoke of the importance of being more mindful and encouraged us to meditate and take deep breaths. And he urged us to be more active with the motto, “Motion is the Lotion.”
Will any of this cure us our autoimmune diseases, which now plague 50 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association? Probably not. But it may lessen the impact of these disorders, which include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and scleroderma. It will certainly help us live healthier lives.
Dr. Pettus himself had parents who had diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Both had kidney failure and went on dialysis to stay alive. When he saw his own life heading down a similar path, he began altering his diet. He took up yoga and running, and began cultivating more friendships. The result was nothing short of astonishing: he lost weight, reduced his cholesterol and improved his ability to handle stress. As Dr. Pettus says, “We are not prisoners of our DNA. It’s not the hand you’re dealt, but how you deal with it.”
So how are you dealing with the hand you were dealt?