So for my second blog reflecting on the ageing process, I’m jumping straight in with both feet to the world of functional medicine. When I turned 50, my mantra was ‘50 is the new 21’ and just as well since I graduated at 51 as a clinically trained Nutritional Therapist! But the interesting thing about functional medicine is that it doesn’t matter when you start as straight away you embark on an eye opening journey into the real subject of health. From then on there is no turning back and I can’t tell you what a privilege that is, as it really puts us in the driving seat of our own health.
The first penny drop for me was that illness or pathology doesn’t just happen out of the blue, nor is it down to just bad luck or genetics. It is in fact often years in the making. So for this topic I want to introduce the wonderful world of epigenetics. In functional medicine we have a fabulous saying which is ‘the genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger’. Just read that again for a moment and have a think about it. It really is quite extraordinary and one of the most empowering statements in the world of health or it should be! Imagine if we lived in a world where this was the mantra of all public health policy but sadly it isn’t and of course there’s no money to be made in being well, at least if we continue to follow the current paradigm of the ‘pill for an ill’.
Fortunately, when we’re in the know we can influence our own epigenetic expression by the choices we make. Each and every second of every day we influence our gene expression positively or negatively by how we live, where we live, who we live with, the food we eat, where we shop, how we cook, how we move our bodies, how we manage stress, how we sleep, the environmental toxins we are exposed to at home and in the workplace and drugs of all sorts; tobacco, medications and so the list goes on.
So a question to ponder on is how are you influencing your gene expression today? Have a look at the list above and think about the areas that you would like to address if you were to give yourselves a quick audit. In a world where chronic health problems dominate, especially as we age we need to understand that pathological ‘processes’ happen long before pathology ensues and we get a diagnosis or an entire shopping list of diagnoses! I love that scene in ‘City Slickers’ where the brilliant Billy Crystal in character as Mitch talked about what he has to look forward to after 40. He says...
“Your forties, you get a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still too loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies you move to Fort Lauderdale, start eating dinner at two…breakfast the night before and spend your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yoghurt and muttering “how come the kinds don’t call?” Your eighties you’ve had a major stroke and end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand, but who you call mama.”
That scene always makes me laugh but the reason we laugh is because we identify with it so much and even if we don’t see ourselves in it, we recognise so many of our friends and family in that timeline. In the western world the last 20 years of our lives are typically spent in poor health on a frightening amount of medications. Currently 80% of people over 65 have one or more chronic illnesses and it’s getting worse not better. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and autoimmune disease dominate more than ever and until we address root cause they will continue to do so.
So back to epigenetics! Isn’t it interesting that there are places and peoples in our world who don’t experience the seemingly age related decline that we do in the west? In the much researched blue zones people live long and vital lives into their 90’s and even 100’s! Shouldn't we be looking at why?
Firstly in the blue zones the diet is based around real, fresh whole foods, grown organically. Very little sugar and zero processed foods. So if we want to replicate this fundamental strategy we have to make wiser choices with our shopping trolley and avoid most of the aisles in the supermarket. Since I did my training, I've always said that we should basically grab our fruit and veg, meat and fish, nuts and seeds, pulses, wholegrains, olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter, dark chocolate and some other (eco friendly non toxic) household necessities and then leave! If we just did this we would begin to influence our epigenetics positively.
As a practitioner in clinical practice I know that what I have said above is highly challenging. Processed food is designed to be majorly delicious, addictive and advertising reminds us how cool, sexy and popular we will be if we eat certain foods or drinks. It’s also against our cultural norms and it’s so difficult to swim against the tide. Phrases like ‘go on have another one’ ‘one more won’t hurt you’ ‘I think you’re becoming a bit too healthy these days’ abound in offices and families and add to the real discomfort in making any positive change. The phrase which always makes me cringe the most is ‘everything is moderation’. First of all how do we define ‘everything’ and second of all what is ‘moderation’? The bottom line is food is meant to be enjoyed but we can still make food delicious and pleasurable by doing one of the most important things we can do for our health and that is to learn to cook. When we learn to combine herbs and spices and to blend flavours we are on a roll. I eat foods now which I never would’ve eaten years ago or even heard of and I am so grateful to have this knowledge and confidence with cooking and foods as I know it takes me a little closer to the blue zone way of living.
Other reasons why changing our lifestyle is so challenging is due to our own health status. Many of the clients I see are struggling with fatigue, chronic pain, mental health challenges, poor concentration, food cravings, binge eating, blood sugar imbalance, multiple nutrient deficiencies and so much more. But the trouble is when you feel rubbish and someone offers you a carrot stick you want to punch them! You want an iced bun or a bar of chocolate (or is that just me?!) and you want it now! We all have those feelings as when we are running from the proverbial tiger we need quick energy and then we’re off.
We also have problems with sleep nowadays and between binge watching netflix and scrolling our phones we are suppressing our melatonin and our poor sleep affects our hunger hormones causing insulin resistance and adds to the physiological mess. So where do we start? Interestingly in blue zones they sleep well and this is key. Always when I am working with a client I start with sleep and get that under control because I know that the domino effect from poor sleep makes any hope of positive change nigh on impossible. From personal experience, I know how stress can impact sleep quality and I can tell you how hangry I feel when I have had a terrible night’s sleep. My personal tips are avoiding caffeine and always top up on magnesium via epsom salt baths and supplementing. I’ll let you into a little secret, magnesium is my desert island supplement and the one I wouldn’t be without as it helps me sleep and calms those stress hormones.
Another thought to end this introduction to epigenetics is that community powerfully influences gene expression and guess what? Those blue zones are very good at it! Loneliness is such a dangerous thing and in terms of health risks, loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 2 packets of cigarettes a day. What a sobering thought. I alluded to the power of community in part 1 and the importance of sharing with others. Instead of sending an empty text, pick up the phone, share your voice and your heart with others with love and sincerity.
And finally, cuddling improves epigenetic expression! Who knew?! That is mind blowing and brings us beautifully back to the power of community.
In City Slickers the wise philosopher and cowboy extraordinaire known as Curly remind the confused Mitch who is in search of the meaning of life that all he needs to do in life is to find this and he holds up one finger in the air and says you need to find that ‘one thing, just one thing.’ It takes Mitch to the end of the movie by which time he has come face to face with life and death as he sadly loses the wise Curly and brings the gorgeous calf Normal into the world as well as experiencing the joy of bringing the cattle in. But finally he realised his one thing was his family and love.
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