Did you know that you are the author of your own story? StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that has been partnering with Iowa Public Radio during the month of August to record, preserve, and share the stories of Des Moines. Every Thursday during August, selected StoryCorps conversations are aired on Public Radio, “revealing the wisdom courage, and poetry in the words of people you might not notice walking down the street.”
As I listen to these stories of personal transformation and hope from ordinary people, I can’t help but be inspired in the midst of seemingly pervasive anxiety in our country and world. There is uncertainty about where our country is headed and distress about the reality of hate, prejudice, and divisions around racism. There are concerns about Russia, North Korea, immigration, and “the wall.” The destruction of Hurricane Harvey looms large.
Here in Iowa, there is great unease about health insurance. In the spring, two of Iowa’s three remaining healthcare providers, Aetna and Wellmark, announced that they would not participate in the state’s exchange in 2018. And the remaining provider, Medica, just announced that they would need to increase premiums by 57% to remain viable if President Trump cuts off a major source of Obamacare assistance.
United Methodists worry about what our denomination and local churches will look like several years from now if we are not able to find a way to remain united in mission and ministry. In the midst of these big issues, each one of us faces challenges in our personal, family, and work lives. Every day I talk with people who feel as if they are at the tipping point in their ability to cope. How can we take care of ourselves, live full and healthy lives, and be the author of our own story when it seems as if we have no viable choices or control?
In a recent conversation with my three siblings and several cousins, we lamented our family history of Alzheimer’s. My mother and two of her three siblings died of Alzheimer’s. It’s very tempting to live on pins and needles, to analyze every conversation and interaction to make sure our memory is not showing signs of deterioration. Is it just a matter of time before my generation of the family is doomed by our genes as well?
I was reminded of a discussion with some colleagues earlier in the summer about clergy health. It was recommended that we read Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi’s 2015 book Super Genes; Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being. The thesis of the book is expressed in Chopra and Tanzi’s words, “You are not simply the sum total of the genes you were born with. You are the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”
Epigenetics, which is the study of the modification of gene expression, is expanding exponentially today and reminds us that we humans are more than good and bad genes. We are a super genome, which is made up of the approximately 23,000 genes that we inherited from our parents, a “switching mechanism” in every strand of DNA that responds to our experience, and the “gut microbes” that live primarily in our intestine.
These components of our super genome form the mind-body system that is uniquely “us.”
According to Tanzi, “Every experience will cause chemical changes in your body and in your brain, and those chemical changes will then cause genetic changes. If those genetic changes occur often enough and with persistence, that can lead to modification of those genes such that they react the same way in the future because they’ve been trained.”[i]
Most important, what geneticists are learning today is that we humans have the capacity to use our genes to help us. We can do that by making positive life-style changes that can profoundly transform the relationship between mind, body, and genes. In essence, we can be the author of our own story.
I am convinced that you and I can create our own story, regardless of the circumstances of our personal lives, our church, our nation, or our world. By making our own emotional, spiritual, relational and physical health a priority, we are better able to be difference makers and change the world. Chopra and Tanzi illustrate the impact of this new understanding of genetics by focusing on six life-style choices for radical well-being.
Diet: Getting Rid of Inflammation
A typical diet high in refined sugar and lacking in fiber increases inflammation and is the body’s response to stress. Inflammation happens when the immune system rushes chemicals (free radicals) to diseased areas and is associated with chronic disease, obesity, and mental illness. A good diet is one way to promote better genetic activity.
Stress: An Enemy in Hiding
A surge of stress hormones can result in elevated heart and blood pressure, and acute stress could compromise the body’s ability to recover properly. Chopra and Tanzi cite various studies showing that Holocaust survivors had the potential of passing the effects of PTSD on to their children. Reduce stress by not multi-tasking, avoiding people who cause you grief, limiting alcohol, placing boundaries around work, taking up a hobby, and reducing noise and distractions.
Exercise: Turning Good Intentions into Action
Get up and start moving! Many studies show that you don’t have to start running marathons. In fact, it is well attested that yoga brings mind, body, and spirit into harmony in amazing ways. When we exercise even moderately, switches are turned off for pro-inflammatory genes while anti-inflammatory genes are switched on.
Meditation: The Centerpiece of Your Well-Being
Chopra and Tanzi are convinced that meditation should be a life-long practice. Those who take as little as ten minutes a day to be still with eyes closed have better health and higher consciousness. Meditation and prayer can also produce long-term structural changes in the brain.
Sleep: Still a Mystery, But Totally Necessary
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can function well with less than seven to eight hours of sleep. Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. Avoid computers or TV thirty minutes before sleep, limit caffeine intake, and have a regular sleep routine. It is only a matter of time before overstimulation at night leads to inflammation and breakdown of the body.
Emotions: How to Find Deeper Fulfillment
Our bodies are deeply affected by our moods. Choosing to be positive rather than negative has a profound effect on our well-being and physical health. Spend time with people who are happy. Express gratitude. Find something that you are passionate about and devote yourself to it. Practice your ability to empathize with others. Set worthy goals that can only be filled over a long period of time. Lead from your heart and trust your gut instincts. Be kind, generous, non-judgmental, and forgiving. Focus outward on serving others, and let the love of Jesus shine through you at all times.
Chopra and Tanzi encourage us to make wise choices and activate the life-giving side of our DNA. They write, “We are learning how to make our genes help us. Instead of allowing your bad genes to hurt you and your good genes to give you a break in life, which used to be the prevailing view, you should think of the super genome as a willing servant who can help you direct the life you want to live. You were born to use your genes, not the other way around.”[ii]
Yes, we are living in anxious times. All the more important to be the author of your own story!
P.S. In honor of Labor Day and the sacredness of both work and rest, I will not be publishing my blog on Labor Day. The next Leading From the Heart will be published on Monday, September 11.
[ii] Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Super Genes; Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, New York, Harmony Books, 2015, p. 4