Epigenetics: The Western Science Supporting Essence
Since the days of Darwin, western medicine has touted that our genes were set in stone, that our genetics were our destiny. We were told that the diseases that ran in our family were likely coming to us as well. In fact, in the clinic, I still have patients who say, "My dad had ________ (fill in the blank with any disease), so I'm destined to get it." I'm sure you hear the same thing.
Interestingly, over the last decade discoveries have been made that contest this western science you are your genes dogma. There has been a significant amount of molecular biology research going into the branch of science known as epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of the how certain environmental factors (like stress, diet and environmental toxins) influence a set of chemical reactions that switch parts of a person's genome (aka DNA) off and on at strategic times and locations which in turn affect whether a disease states or other heritable characteristics arise or not.
Epigenetics, one of the fastest-growing areas of science, is considered a bridge between genotype (our genetic sequence that was once thought to be unchangeable) and phenotype (the actual expression or manifestation of physical characteristics). Basically, epigenetic researchers have discovered that how one lives their life — from stress to diet to their behavior and exposure to environmental toxins — affects their overall health and whether or not disease states manifest.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been having this discussion for thousands of years, we call it: essence. As students of TCM, we have been taught that essence is essential to the maintenance of life. Pre-natal (aka congenital) essence is before birth essence, it is the foundation from which we are created: our genetics passed on from our parents as well as the embryonic environment within which we developed; and, post-natal (aka acquired) essence is the after-you've-been-born essence, created by how we live our life: diet, exercise, stress management, emotional balance and our relationship with nature. Pre-natal essence is like our genome and post-natal essence is like our epigenome.
Personally, I find it amazing that western medical research has finally caught up to the foundational TCM principle of essence. For my upcoming book I was interviewing one of the nations top reproductive endocrinologists whose area of research is epigenetics and infertility and I shared with him the TCM theory of essence. He was absolutely fascinated saying, "Wow! So you guys have been onto this notion of epigenetics for thousands of years!?"
Yes, we have.
The way I interpret epigenetics is: it's the same thing as post-natal essence. And, the bottom line is that the way you live your life, from the foods you eat, to how much you sleep, to how stressful your life is directly affects your health and the diseases your body expresses or doesn't. The tents of TCM support the recent epigenetic research—negative environmental factors can alter our epigenetics and our essence and adversely impact our health and cause us to age before our time. Alternatively, we can shift our health for the better if we make choices that support our epigenetics and our essence. As practitioners of TCM have been promoting for centuries: eat healthfully, live peacefully, sleep enough, follow the energy of the seasons, seek out joy in your life and express your emotions.
On the heels of such scientific research that is ultimately changing the face of the way western medicine views genetics, as practitioners of TCM we must be sue to take time with every patient to educate them on this topic and remind them that their health is not set in stone, that they have the power to shift their epigenetics, cultivate post-natal essence and ultimately lead a life of optimal health. We are not merely acupuncturists or herbalists, we are healthcare practitioners that are meant to educate and empower our patients with such knowledge. Personally, I don't need the western scientific findings to support my unwavering belief in my practice of TCM and in my constant promotion of healthy lifestyle habits but having such research provides us with even more information to share with our western patients. Culturally, many in the west take TCM on faith, however with the ever-growing field of epigenetics, we now have a very clear indication of western science catching up with fundamental TCM theory — the way we live our life emotionally, nutritionally and physically along with the environmental factors we are exposed to directly affects our health. I believe it is our responsibility as practitioners to spread this information so that we can be of service to all those who need us.