There could hardly be greater differences between two U.S. presidents than we’ve seen with President Trump and President Biden. Their policies are almost polar opposites. They don’t appear to agree on any issue. Yet, there is one thing they both agree on with a lot of passion: neither of them touch alcohol.
President Trump saw his brother struggle with alcoholism and then die from the ravages of it. Even before that he had decided to avoid drinking, and he once stated he hadn’t had so much as a single glass of alcohol in his life. Such was his determination not to become drawn in by the allure of drinking and the potential for addiction he suspected would grab him if he gave it a chance. President Biden had similar suspicions: he came from a family of drinkers and believed that there was a genetic component running through his family, and his son became addicted to hard drugs. Both men determined not to give alcohol the slightest chance of becoming an addiction. Both doubted that they would have achieved what they achieved otherwise.
The genetic strain that they feared was not one of a need for alcohol. They have lived through life as high achievers without any alcohol, so obviously they didn’t need it. No, their fear was that addictive behavior could become a problem if given the chance, and they didn’t want their lives derailed by that. But drugs and alcohol are not the only addictive temptations in life. Simple food addictions, where someone craves chocolate or sugar and eats them compulsively can damage their lives too. Some have trouble with gambling, daredevil behavior, TV watching, social media or numerous other life-wasting temptations — addiction isn’t limited to substance abuse.
But is a genetic link the problem? As we’ve come to learn more about epigenetics, where cells can search their DNA “library” for unused codes (most of DNA is unused) that they need in a particular environment, we see that cells “cherry pick” the best codes to use. Genetic changes take time to make major changes, but epigenetics simply throw a switch by selecting a new code and running with it. Those changes can be short or long lasting, but are reversible. Maybe Biden has some genetics which could be switched on were he to start drinking alcohol, but he isn’t addicted now regardless of his genetics, so genetics only present the potential for addiction. They have to be engaged for addiction to take hold.
Addiction, habit, and cravings
Habits do not carry with them the appearance of need; that is, you don’t feel a need to keep doing something, but have just established a pattern of doing it. Habits can be broken by retraining to different habits. Addiction is harder to break, because something has changed in your brain/body so it requires the substance you are addicted to to function normally. This means that some epigenetic change has occurred to accommodate the substance, such as alcohol, as part of your environment. When the environment changes and you drop the substance usage completely, the body is under stress initially because your “norm” has changed. But since epigenetics are all about responding to the environment, once your body adjusts to your new substance-free mode, your “norm” is life without that substance.
Cravings are somewhere in-between these habits and addictions: your body has determined a false “need” for sugar or specific foods , often because you’ve been in the habit of eating them, and you desire more. Except in conditions of deprivation of certain nutrients which can sometimes touch off a specific legitimate desire for certain foods, cravings are basically mental errors — your brain is telling you that you need a particular food. If you avoid that food, you won’t be worse off; in fact, you likely will be better for avoiding the craving, but your brain is sending a false signal.
Since your brain controls your body, your challenge is with your brain. Other mental issues — depression, anxiety, worry, and stress — obviously are primarily brain issues. So the key to success is your brain.
Taking the reins
Your brain is a tool, as is the rest of your body. It is the physical machinery that allows you to function in this world. Your mind uses your brain, but your mind is meant to control it. But since it has to work through the brain, your mind may struggle at times to take control. Your brain has a primal reward signaling system in place, which tells you that certain behavior is pleasurable, promoting you to do more of it. This system doesn’t calculate the health value of the pleasurable experience — that is the job of higher level thinking which we may call ‘“choice.” Our minds can choose a course of action, even when our brains are trying to signal another, but that can be a struggle.
Training your brain isn’t always a struggle though. As you change your environment, epigenetic changes happen automatically. Some are slow to occur, and some are rapid, but epigenetics are always attempting to find the right DNA code solution to deal with the environment you present your body. Just taking steps to clean up your internal environment can cause cravings, and even addictions, to fade.
What research is starting to uncover is how much the brain is affected by the body’s environment, even to changing its very operation, because of epigenetic changes. There are two opposing processes which affect how readily genes can be marked to turn on or off certain genetic codes: methylation and acetylation. Methylation tightens the DNA coil so that transcription is reduced, leading to more gene segment silencing, while adding an acetyl group to the DNA tail (acetylation) neutralizes the charge of the structure, loosening the DNA coil and resulting in gene activation. In a study published in Science Advances, researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago manipulated methylation and acetylation in an animal study: first they created adolescent alcohol addiction. which they believed caused epigenetic changes, and then they were able to counteract those changes by promoting acetylation. The acetylation resulted in gene activation normalizing, and anxiety and alcohol consumption decreasing. Then they tried taking non-addicted animals and promoted methylation, which increased anxiety and desire for alcohol to increase, similar to the addicted group.
This study manipulated the natural methylation/acetylation process, first counteracting the epigenetic changes brought on by alcohol abuse, and then promoting similar epigenetic changes without alcohol. But this merely shows that epigenetic changes are reactions to the environment, and the researchers only isolated the changes. In another study, published in Pharmacogenomics, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University collected data from multiple other studies on the epigenetic effects of individual drugs to determine if genetics predisposed someone to addiction, or if the drugs brought on the epigenetic changes that then resulted in addiction. The specific drugs studied each had unique epigenetic pathways in specific brain regions which led to changes in the reward-signaling, memory consolidation, and locomotor (muscular control) functions of the brain. They concluded that predisposition to addiction does exist, and that some epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generation, but the main impact of the drugs was to trigger rapid epigenetic changes, primarily through hypermethylation (“hyper” meaning “excessive”). Both this study and the previous indicated that reversal is possible, usually through acetylation.
Our hope for a better future
Epigenetics are triggered similarly by stress, worry, poor nutrition and lack of exercise. These are all environmental factors that epigenetics was designed to respond to, just as it responds to calm, peace, love, and the diet the body was designed for. You may have no addiction issues, but struggle with depression, anxiety, anger, fear, or even food cravings — these are also epigenetic responses in your brain similar to addiction. And the answer to those is the same as with addiction: change your internal environment and epigenetics will follow.
This is the great hope we all can embrace: epigenetics follow the environment, either towards health or away from it. Like a moving ship, our bodies are changing constantly. Steer yours in a good direction — set your course to greater health.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments
Your genes are never your destiny, just the base blueprint that you work off of. This blueprint is put into effect in real time with epigenetics. This is adding a methyl group or an acetyl group or taking them away — this is done through your diet, your lifestyle, your exercise and everything else you do affects this and affects the outcome of what part of the gene is read. Your lifestyle and your diet also tremendously impact your mind and your emotions and vice versa.
What the Baylor College of Medicine study showed was simply you are not a product of your genes but your genes are epigenetically controlled by your choices and habits. Make a new choice, establish a new habit and your brain along with your genes will make a new program to support that choice. That epigenetic program will not only serve you but can be passed to the next generation, but remember nothing is permanent: with every choice we can rewrite our genes epigenetically.
What the University of Illinois study showed is this: just by changing the epigenetic tagging of the gene they could turn on or off anxiety and addiction. This is quite amazing. So the mind controls the body but the body also talks back to the mind. How does this work? Well let’s say you choose to switch over to a very health-promoting diet and start exercising extremely regularly. These physical activities that you chose in your mind to engage in now set forth epigenetic marking of the DNA. You sense this in your mind and body because you feel more calm and have more energy and are less inflammatory. But now let’s say that life starts stressing you out tremendously and you go back to the old pleasure foods and the old non-exercising lifestyle — what will the result be? The body and the activity has already epigenetically tagged the genes for health, so if you go back to your old ways many times you have quite a significant negative reaction mentally and physically because your genes have already been upregulated to make you healthier.
So what does this all mean? When you make a choice to improve your health and your life and you take the action steps physically to put that choice into regular action, then the body is going to tag the genes to keep that going. Now if you go backward and make poor choices, even though those choices are producing pain, and continue eating wrong food, getting no exercise, and engaging in negative lifestyle practices, then your genes will be reset epigenetically again in a negative way because of the negative diet and lifestyle. Your choices, and the resulting epigenetic changes, create momentum in one direction or the other.
What you choose with your mind, your brain will carry it out and send a messages to your body of how to maintain that lifestyle. But you can override the genes anytime with a new epigenetic pattern — either positive or negative, the choice is up to you: your genes are just serving your actions. That is why the safest choice is always one that benefits your mind and your body, not one or the other. An ice cream sundae might satisfy your mind but it greatly inflames and negativity affects the cells of your body. Eating a Daniel fast might get much resistance from the pleasure seeking addictive brain, but your body will be very receptive. So if you step out with the action steps to produce health and life, then that’s what your genes will give you; and if you don’t then your genes will give you the opposite. The choice is up to you and the action steps you take moment by moment.
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