I am posting this today because it points to what Buddhism has been saying since Buddha: The universal law of karma is real, and it affects us and our descendants for generations. Be careful what you think, as you are affecting your grandchildren’s health!
We all know that stress can wreak havoc on your health but what does it do to your genes?
Lecturer/Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University
March 15, 2016
The Dutch famine of 1944 was a terrible time for many in the Netherlands – with around 4.5m people affected and reliant on soup kitchens after food supplies were stopped from getting into the area by German blockades. As many as 22,000 people were thought to have died, and those who survived would find it extremely difficult to ever fully recover.
The dietary intake of people in affected areas was reduced from a healthy 2000 calories a day to a measly 580 – a quarter of the “normal” food intake. Unsurprisingly, without a balanced diet, children born to mothers who were pregnant during the famine showed a much lower than average birth weight.
But then something strange happened: their children’s children had the same low birth weight, despite their mother’s “normal” food and calorie intake.
We often talk about our genetic make-up and “how good” or “how healthy” our genes are. We also know “bad genes” can lead to us having a higher chance of developing a particular disease if our parents are carriers. But while scientists can look for those faulty or changed genes, over the last decade we have learned this is not the whole story.
Because it is not just our genes and DNA which determines our health, but also environmental factors such as diet, stresses, and lifestyle choices – just like in the Netherlands.
These environmental conditions, alongside the life experiences of our parents, grandparents, and even our great-grandparents, have been shown to flip “stop” and “go” signals which regulate pretty much every process taking place in our cells. These signals can then cause changes on top of the inherited DNA molecules which can determine our well being – hence the lower birth weight of babies only distantly related to the famine.
Epigenetics takes the age-old question of “nature vs nurture” to a whole new level of scientific interest. But it is a controversial field of study with wide-reaching implications which could change everything we thought we knew about genetic inheritance.
What we do know, though, is that the environment and our nutritional intake plays a crucial role in affecting changes to our DNA – which has been demonstrated by the effects of the Dutch famine. The famine has shown how changes in epigenetic markers – the “stop” and “go” signals – are inherited, from parent to offspring and to their offspring in turn. This process is called transgenerational inheritance.
The genes affected are ones that are important in processing nutrients and are associated with diseases such as diabetes or are implicated in mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
Studies on identical twins show how the environment and trauma can change these epigenetic flags. While the siblings were genetically identical, their identical epigenetics changed over time – essentially showing how environmental factors can alter genes which are linked to depression, anxiety and obesity.
Recently, studies using mice, rats, fruit flies and worms have also shown that trauma and stress can affect these epigenetic flags which then get passed on to the next generation, and then on to the next.
We know that if a female rat takes good care of her offspring, for example, then the pups are able to cope better with stress compared to rat pups that were ignored and had high levels of stress. In this instance, the removal of “stop” signals on a specific gene seems to be linked to happier offspring.
Similarly, male mice who experience stress early in their lives pass this on, even to their grand pups – which are more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression, even if they were looked after well and grew up in a nurturing environment.
Fixing the future?
Studies in humans are difficult to control as generally we do not have a reference value for epigenetic markers before a trauma or stress, so we cannot make easy comparisons. But what we do know is that women who were pregnant while experiencing extremely stressful situations, such as the 9/11 attacks, apparently have passed on this experience to their child.
Their children have reported experiencing depression, anxiety and poor coping mechanisms in stressful situations. Similarly, children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims often have mental health issues.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. We aren’t simply living at the mercy of our ancestors’ past lives because we do know that at least some of the epigenetic marks are reversible.
We potentially can affect our epigenetics by living a healthy lifestyle and providing our body with the necessary building blocks for these epigenetic flags.
Recent research also shows that drugs can remove negative epigenetic marks and remove “stop” signals – which has been shown to allow changed genes present in cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes to go back to their original state.
So while we may still be some way off fully understanding the role epigenetics plays in the “nature vs nurture” debate, one thing is clear: it’s not simply our genes that make us. So next time you’re feeling stressed or angry, or thinking about grabbing another takeaway pizza on the way home, think of your future grandchildren. It may save them a whole lot of bother.
I am going out on a limb today, and break routine by sharing something personal with you. I have experienced sudden enlightenment. Mind you, this sudden enlightenment took about six months, if not more, possibly numerous lifetimes, to arrive.
I was raised Catholic but left the Church when I was 13 or so. It did not satisfy the persistent hunger, or quest, that was inside me.
This was the 1970’s, the decade after the consciousness revolution of the sixties. Change was everywhere. Everything was possible. Funny enough, it was the Beatniks, Jack Kerouac especially, who introduced me to Buddhism and Zen. Of course, Herman Hesse’s “Siddharta” was in every hippy’s back pocket back then.
Anyway, I eventually came across the Introduction to Zen series by Daitero Suzuki, who is credited of bringing Zen to the west in the early 1900’s. I still recall those days when we called ourselves the Occident, and Asia was the Orient. Just like the two hemispheres of the brain. Made sense.
Those books transformed my life radically. I did not merely read them; I lived them. There are still crisp memories of Suzuki’s Zen travelers wandering the hills between temples looking for a master in my mind’s eye.
These books left an ineludible mark on my self.
The experience became so intense that I was basically doing Zazen 24 hours a day. I could program my mind to wake me up at any time I chose. I could, and did, function on roughly four hours of sleep per night.
There was a gorgeous and intelligent delightful woman on the scene. Bonjour ma belle Lucie Arsenault! It ties in with this story, I promise.
I did not become a recluse or anything of the sort. I mingled. I just spent most of my free time doing Zazen, and when not doing Zazen I would use mindfulness. Yes, it requires a herculean amount of energy. I was 18. There’s plenty of that at that age.
Some Montreal friends, knowing what I was up to, asked me to watch over their hobby farm in the country because they had a month-long art exhibition in the city. What a perfect opportunity it was. I could now devote myself entirely to Zen. The Quebec countryside can be magical in the winter time.
All there was to do was taking care of the animals: ducks, goats, chickens, rabbits, and a big ram that always wanted to dominate me. I became to fall in love with all creatures right there and then.
There was no TV. Nothing but silence, my new animal buddies, and that natural scenery that left you in awe, especially when it snowed. I remember seeing the flakes fall like little silent balls of cotton with no purpose.
Before leaving, my friends did tell me there were a few boxes of French magazines, National Geography style, in the back room. Upon opening the boxes I realized I hit the Buddhist lottery: hundreds of magazines from the 1940s and 1950s exclusively on Tibet. The Tibet before the invasion and present occupation. What a treat. I now had some intellectual candy at my disposal. All about their customs and their culture. The grainy black and white pictures made them look so primitive. I recall loving Lapsang Souchong tea at the time.
The month went too fast. I spent all my time involved in Zazen and mindfulness. I could write infinite pages on those blissful moments. Who knew there was a hermit inside, eh?
When my friends returned, I honestly must say I was extremely disappointed. I wanted the experience to go on forever. Ah well, back into the Samsara it was.
Lucie showed up unannounced the next day. I still have no idea how she found me. So it was like a family reunion of my fave humans I guess. After a few days we returned to the big city.
In Montreal I would see Lucie here and there, and I continued Zazen, not as intense as the countryside Zazen, and I would go to a Buddhist temple often to mediate with others. Sangha.
One day, on my way to Lucie’s flat near downtown St Catherine’s street, it hit me. I truly cannot describe it. Words fail it because the experience is not of this reality. You instinctively know and love and understand everyone and everything around you. You are one with the Tao. The peace and exhilaration are undescribable.
I could see the world we see, but more importantly I could see another dimension co-existing at the same time as this one. Hello quantum theory! There were presences. There were Bodhisattvas and wise entities from God knows where in this new entangled reality. I understood them through mind only. No words at all. Not even in the mind. I still remember the most fascinating part of it all: We truly are merely like cells, biological cell-like entities. Remember the scene in the Matrix where Neo sees all the humans in bio tanks totally unaware they are asleep? Bingo. I wonder where the creators of the Matrix got that knowledge.
The experience lasted about three days. I was beyond fascinated by it all. Meanwhile, Lucie and her roommate Marie would go on about their business around me. It’s not like I was in a trance. Like I said previously, you can take the bus with your enlightenment!
The “vision” of that other reality eventually dissipated, but I was left with one of the most valuable gifts any human can have in this reality.
I excitedly went to see the senior monk at the temple and told him about it.
I guess I was expecting a parade and some applause perhaps? Oh the ego.
He told me calmly that it happens all the time. Not to be afraid of it. Afraid? Are you kidding me? I wanted to be in that state permanently! My next decision, he told me, was to choose between monastic life (take the vows), or choose the Samsara.
Well, you know the answer. Hey, I was 18 and Lucie was a Goddess of a woman. I chose the Samsara. For better or for worse. I married and had children, worked, and experienced the ecstasies of being human, as well as endured and suffered the pains of this reality. We all feel pain. OK, 99% of us do. It’s like the unfinished circle in Zen that represents reality. There is no such thing as perfection. Nothing is ever 100%. In Nature anyway. That is why we have to meditate and always be aware of our condition. Meditation is the breathing of the soul.
Now, my children have moved on and have their own lives and realities. I am free from encumbrances. My only desire now is to go back to the source knowing full well that it never left. It’s always here. I just have to get rid of the Samsara dirt accumulated since eons ago.
Apologies, but if I don’t press “publish” now, I never will. So forgive the inconsistencies. I am the unfinished circle.