At the CrossFit Games last week I was blown away by the amazing athletes. These are men and women who have achieved levels of fitness that most of us sigh for in vain – incredible sources of inspiration for those of us looking to become healthier, stronger, fitter versions of ourselves.
They’re in a league so far beyond most of us, that it’s almost unattainable to us mere mortals.
But then I looked around at the 25,000 spectators at the games and was pretty taken aback by the sight. Ordinarily, in a crowd that size we’d see a pretty diverse selection of people. Mostly average looking, ordinary folks – pretty much a representation of who we’d see down at the supermarket, or loitering around a shopping mall. This crowd, however, was different. I’d say it was, hands down, the most beautiful selection of people I have ever seen in one place in such vast numbers. In fact I’d venture so far as to say – if the world were about to be destroyed and we needed to repopulate a new outpost, this would be a pretty good selection of people with whom to do that.
This is not to say they were all genetically superior to your average person – they weren’t Victoria Secret models or Rich Froning clones. But they were beautiful. Like they took the ordinary, everyday genes they were dealt, and super charged them into something better.
This got me thinking about us as human beings. How we are born with a basic “package” of genes, and beyond the physical, all those other intangible qualities – intelligence, strength of character, moral fortitude, etc, that we’re born with, and how we either develop into something impressive, or not, depending on our choices throughout our lives. We all know we can develop the intangible qualities – even in terms of intelligence. We know that our nutrition and education from a young age has a profound impact on our brain development. We also know that we are able to develop our characters for better or worse – either developing those virtues within us that will make us valuable members of society, or eschewing them for a, perhaps less, productive existence.
So what about physical selves? Do our genes really determine how healthy/good-looking/fit we turn out to be? Or how we fit into our jeans? I know many people feel that they are doomed to a life of obesity or sickness because of the DNA sequences they’ve been dealt. In fact it is pretty convenient to blame our current state of health (or lack thereof) on something over which we have no control. “Oh, I have diabetes because it runs in my family”, or “yeah, everyone in my family is overweight – it’s in my genes”.
But how much is this really valid?
Yes, we are all given a basic genetic framework – some traits of which are non-negotiable. I will, for instance, always have curly hair (despite the amount of time I spend trying to straighten it). I will also always be slightly taller than I’d like and will never have the gorgeous blue eyes my sister got. And most of us will probably never look like this:
Fine. I can live with that. But aside from those unchangeable fundamental traits I’m born with, how much can I influence the genetic code I inherited?
This is where epigenetics comes into the picture. This refers to the gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence of an organism. So more scientifically – functionally relevant modifications to the genome that do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence.
In plain english? We may be born with certain genetic traits, but depending on our life-styles/exposure to external stimuli, these traits can either be switched on or off. In other words, we can influence whether or not these genes are expressed. So, for example, someone may be born with a predisposition towards obesity, but depending on external stimuli (foods they eat, how well they sleep, their ability to manage stress, etc), chances are that this genetic predisposition will never manifest. Same with something like heart-disease in my case. In my family there are plenty of people who died from heart-attacks at a young age, and so there is probably some genetic predisposition in my DNA towards a similar fate. I do not, however, intend to allow this trait to manifest.
How does this work?
The on/off switch of our genes happens through a process called methylation. This denotes the addition of a methyl group to a substrate (in this case our DNA). Methylation plays an important role in the stability of our trinucleotides, which in turn affects the stability of the germinal and somatic cells within our system.
Certain diseases (such as Hungtingtons Disease, for example) result from a CAG repeat, which is due to a somatic instability, which gradually deteriorates over time and explains why symptoms usually only manifest towards mid-life, despite the gene being present from birth. Read more about how this works.
I can already feel you glazing over, so I won’t go into all the science now, but you can read more here. Anyway, suffice it to say, external factors can play a very critical role in how certain diseases are activated or not.
This process of methylation begins as early as in our mother’s womb, and is highly dependent on the nutrition of the mother. Studies have shown that nutrient deficiencies in utero can lead to the development of disease later in life. This is known as the Barker Hypothesis, and whilst still only a hypothesis, has lead to various animal studies which further validate the actual biological basis for the theory.
In one study, sheep in utero were deprived of B vitamins and methionine, and they ended up being heavier, more prone to autoimmunity, had elevated blood pressure and were insulin resistant.
We touched on this topic briefly here, but this reiterates how important good nutrition during pregnancy is for the longterm health of our offspring.
This does not mean, however, that we are necessarily doomed if we didn’t luck out with our mother’s nutrition while we were in utero. Methylation is an ongoing process, and is what allows us to adapt to changing environments throughout our lives. We can still have a great deal of influence over whether or not these genes actually manifest.
So, for example, if we are predisposed to being insulin resistant, it is probably a good idea to keep a tighter reign on our carbohydrate intake throughout our lives than someone not so predisposed.
This also explains why some people can seemingly eat whatever they like, whilst others eat one cookie and instantly put on weight.
But, despite whether or not you are predisposed to a condition, it would be a wise idea to live with this thought in mind:
Everything we eat is either making us healthier, or less healthy.
We have a fair amount of choice over whether we allow our positive genes to dominate, or we succumb to those that will lead us to disease. This, again, highlights the importance of eating a non-inflammatory, real-food diet, getting enough sleep so that we are in tune with our circadian rhythm, and managing our stress effectively.
Which brings me back to the beautiful crowds at the CrossFit Games. Each of these people had the option, when they were born, to either display or switch off certain genes, depending on their life-style choices. The crowd was not beautiful because only beautiful people do CrossFit and eat Paleo, but I’d like to hypothesize that CrossFit, together with healthy eating, can turn very ordinary people into extraordinary versions of themselves.
It can make a crowd of people that wouldn’t ordinarily turn your head, look like they just stepped out of a Hollister catalog.
I would also like to suggest that this is the way the entire human race is supposed to look. It shouldn’t even be considered extraordinary.