For many years, Buddhist teachers have instructed their students that, “We are the owners of our karma. Whatever we think, that we will be.” Through the mechanism of epigenetics, Western medical science is underscoring that belief.
Over the last several decades, we have learned that genes direct and mold who we are in terms of things like physical traits, and our potential susceptibility to certain diseases. Yet, identical twins, with exactly the same DNA, often exhibit different physical and health characteristics over time. If DNA is destiny, how could this be? Enter epigenetics. Scientists have discovered that while the makeup of our genes is important, how they are expressed (or rendered inactive) may play a more significant role in determining our day-to-day health.
Epigenetic modifications to the functioning of our genes occur when our cells apply or remove molecular tags to areas of our DNA. This in turn can inhibit or activate the copying of one or more genes that may ultimately result in health problems. Unlike DNA, which is vigorously protected from change by a variety of cellular mechanisms, these epigenetic tags and much more flexible and can be affected by environmental factors, e.g., stress, environmental toxins, or the types of foods we eat. Thus our lifestyle, behaviors, and the things we are exposed to can alter the way our genes operate.
Even more astonishing is that epigenetic changes created during one’s lifetime seem, in certain circumstances, to be capable of being passed down to future generations. (For example, epidemiologists have been able to follow the long-term effects of the famine known as the Dutch Hunger winter of 1944, on those who lived through it. They have seen its effects in subsequent generations.) This epigenetic inheritance means that health issues you are experiencing could have originated with the behavior, diet and environment of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.
All of this may be a little disconcerting, but it is also hopeful. Epigenetics opens the possibility of having greater control of our health, even when the code of our DNA appears to warn of danger - e.g., in the case of cancer. In a sense, DNA is like a musical score. How pleasing we find the music that the score represents is determined to a great extent by the virtuosity of the performer.
Perhaps epigenetics represents our biochemical karma which we guide by how we process life.