When we think of genes, we tend to think about the genes we have and the ones we don’t have, not the genes we can change. But the truth is that we have a lot of control over our genetic activity. Yes, some genes we cannot do much about, but the vast majority of our DNA listens to us: our thoughts, choices and behavior. In this podcast (episode #207) and blog, I speak with Harvard professor, neuroscientist and researcher Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and founder of the field of neurogenetics, about the influence we have over our genetic activity, how our lifestyle impacts our wellbeing on the level of our DNA, how to keep our brains and bodies young and healthy, the relationship between spirituality and science, the power of mindful thinking, and so much more!
When it comes to science, Dr. Tanzi constantly emphasizes the importance of an open mind. In many cases, the mysticism of today is the science of tomorrow. We should not just discount something as “woowoo” or nonsense if we haven’t figured out a way to understand or measure its impact on our lives yet. Science and spirituality are often the same thing, at different points on a spectrum. They both seek to go beyond what we understand in the moment.
Observing the world around us is best done when we are aware of being aware. This is the core of both mindfulness and science. This helps us tap into our intuition, the deepest part of who we are, enabling us to gain deep insights and make great discoveries.
This ability to stand outside yourself and observe your own thinking is the key to changing the way your genes express, which, in turn, impacts both your mental and physical wellbeing. Every moment, you are empowered to take control of how your experiences impact your health, down to the genetic level, by observing your life and how you condition your brain through your choices and subsequent behavior. As Dr. Tanzi points out, you are not your brain; you are the user of your brain. Every choice you make determines the experiences you have, and every experience you have will condition your genetic expression. Your habits and lifestyle come from programs of genes, which you can control.
Yes, there are gene mutations that take many, many years, but your experiences also change the way you express your genes—this is called epigenetics. Basically, this means that although you are born with certain genes, you get to sculpt many of these genes and how they express themselves through your lifestyle, habits and choices. You have a lot of control over your biology! Indeed, 97% of your genetic history is not written in stone—it is amenable to your sculpting.
What does this look like on a day to day basis? If you are constantly creating an environment of physical stress in the brain and body, your genes will adapt. Very soon, your genetic environment will be hurting you every day instead of healing you, because your genes are responding to how you live your life. But the good news is that this can change! It only takes around 60 days to start reversing this. Although your DNA stays the same, your gene expression program will start changing when you start making different choices. You are essentially genetically reprogramming yourself when you choose to stand outside yourself, observe your thinking and choices, and change the way you live your life.
Why is this so important? As Dr. Tanzi notes from his research, we pass on any epigenetic modifications we make to our offspring. For instance, we can inherit the phobias of our parents based on their own life experiences and choices. The way we choose to live our lives now can impact future generations!
Our choices also directly impact the health of the brain and our ability to think well. When it comes to cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s, Dr. Tanzi notes how the most important thing we can do is reduce neuroinflammation. Many different things can trigger inflammation in the brain, but if we can keep this inflammation down, then we can, in general, reverse or stave off cognitive decline. Dr. Tanzi is currently working with several different companies doing research and creating medications that both reduce neuroinflammation and combat inherited genetic mutations that cause cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s (which accounts for 2-3% of inherited genes across the whole population). However, there are important lifestyle changes we can make now that can reduce neuroinflammation, decrease our risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia, and keep our brains young and healthy:
- Be mindful about your neuroplasticity: be flexible, change your mind, think deeply, and be aware of being aware. Don’t resist thoughts, rewire them. Every day, be mindful of what you need to change, what new choices you need to make, and how your experiences may be shaping you. When you learn to observe your own thinking, you drive your mind; you are not driven by your mind. You can adapt to what life throws your way because you are not defined by what happens to you.
- In his book The Healing Self, Dr. Tanzi recommends practicing what he calls “SHIELD” everyday:
- Sleep: Deep sleep cleans the brain, so try get at least at least 8 hours of sleep, even if this includes a nap or two during the day. For more on sleep and mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #97) and check out my recent blog.
- Handling stress: practice mindfulness. Don’t let your negative feelings define you—be aware of what you are aware of. If you need help doing this, check out my app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the roots of your mental habits, and overcome thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental health through the mental process of reconceptualization.
- Interaction: as humans, we are social beings. We are made to be part of a community; when we are isolated, our health suffers. In fact, research has shown that loneliness can increase our risk for Alzheimer’s by causing us stress! Find ways to incorporate more community in your daily life, even if this is just a phone call or video chat!
- Exercise. Movement is really great for everything, including brain health! It directly reduces inflammation in the brain and increases neurogenesis – the birth of new nerve cells – in the part of brain that most affected by Alzheimer’s. Dr. Tanzi recommends exercising for at least 20 minutes a day—anything that gets your blood pumping and heart rate up is great! For more on exercise and brain health, listen to my recent podcast (episode #139) and check out my blog.
- Learn new things: Learning and brain building prevents us from losing synapses, or connectivity in the brain. When we learn something new, new synapse connections connect with old synapse connections, which build new neural networks that are the hallmark of a healthy brain. When you are observing what your brain is doing, you are creating new connections in the brain and learning. This is an essential part of any wellbeing regimen. True intelligence is not about brain activity; it is about brain connectivity! If you want to learn more about this, check out my book Think, Learn, Succeed.
- Diet: because of the gut-brain connection, what we eat both directly and indirectly affects the health of our brain. So, try to include more fiber-rich foods in your diet like vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, which feed the good bacteria in our microbiome and help keep the gut and the brain happy. For more on the gut-brain connection, listen to my podcast (episode #94) and check out my blog.
For more on epigenetics, mental health, Alzheimer’s and mindfulness, listen to my podcast with Dr. Tanzi (episode #207), and check out his books. For more on preventing and reversing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, listen to my podcast episodes #87 and #203, and check out my blog.
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For more mental self-care tips to improve your mind and brain health, pre-order my new book 101 Ways to be Less Stressed, which is now on sale less 20%!
4:45 The importance of deep thinking to learn and understand
10:00 The close relationship between science and spirituality
22:33 Genes, epigenetics and how we can control our DNA expression
29:00 Why what we think today can affect future generations
36:29 How our lifestyle choices can prevent Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline
56:00 Why learning is about brain connectivity, not brain activity
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