We live in interesting times in which things are changing faster than we can sometimes keep track of them. One of the places where this occurs is the field of medicine. The changes that are happening and about to happen there are truly amazing, and are bringing great hope to many that cures of diseases such as cancer, AIDS and Altzheimer’s, to name just a few, may be around the corner. One of the cutting-edge areas of medicine is that of epigenetics—a discipline that works with the ways in which our genes “express” themselves in us. Whereas science used to think that our DNA and genetic makeup were unchangeable, written in stone, more recent research has opened up that picture to suggest that many factors may play a role in affecting the ways in which our genes switch on or off, and which of many possibilities actually come into play for us.
All of the possibilities that are being talked about have created a situation in which there is a great debate going on as to exactly what is and isn’t possible, and whether some are overpromising or even exploiting people’s fears and hopes to enrich themselves. From a spiritual perspective, this debate has been going on forever. All of the great spiritual traditions have taught that there are possibilities beyond what our physical senses tell us, and greater than what we think or know. In fact, shifting into a place of “not knowing” to a vaster space of mind or consciousness is one of the core aspects of almost all spiritual teachings, ancient or modern.
This is of particular relevance for those suffering with addiction and in recovery, because epigenetics appears to hold out special promise of finding new ways of healing that may not leave us stuck in a place of struggling to keep our addictions at bay forever as the best we can do. What is being suggested by this new area of research, and how does it connect with our efforts to live out a healthy, realistic and supportive spirituality? What exactly is epigenetics?
The Science Media Centre Fact Sheet defines it this way:
‘Epigenetics’ refers to the study of heritable (inherited) changes in cells that occur with no underlying changes to the underlying genetic code. These changes involve chemical modifications that alter gene expression and effectively result in genes being either switched ‘on’ (expressed) or ‘off’ (silenced).
What this means is that epigenetics, unlike genetics, is not about the unchanging building blocks of who we are physically that we inherit from our biological parents, but about those aspects that are changeable and affected by environment—the old familiar “nature vs. nurture” argument. This is a relatively new science, so not all of the forces that can switch our genes on or off have been identified yet; but those that have are mostly ones brought about by chemical “tags”, and relate to proteins called “histones” which bind to our DNA and give shape to chromosomes and help control the activity of genes. As you can imagine, much of this is highly technical and requires specialized training to fully understand.
The effects of epigenetics have been linked to a greater risk for cancer, diabetes, and mental illness. If researchers can pinpoint the factors that switch genes on and off, it opens the potential for developing treatments that target those genes and those factors precisely, and may even give us the ability to prevent such conditions from developing.
Perhaps the most intriguing—and controversial—part of the information that is emerging from the study of epigenetics has to do with what are called “transgenerational epigenetic effects.” This refers to the ways in which environmental, psychological and behavioral impacts in our ancestry may be transmitted to us through changes to how our genes express. Unlike more basic genetic inheritance through evolution, which takes long stretches of time to develop, epigenetic changes can happen much faster, over a few generations, and even within a single lifetime.
For example, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the U.K. relates that “fathers who took up smoking before puberty had sons who were more likely to be obese.” And mothers who were pregnant on 9/11 “had altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood of their babies, suggesting events in the womb might be responsible,” according to Science Media Centre.
This is of particular importance, potentially at least, for those working with addiction and recovery, because the research has shown that our genes probably account for somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of the risk for addiction, with 50 percent being the round number that is often mentioned. It is thought that multiple genes—each one of which carries only a relatively small risk for addiction—combine to “add up” to a higher inclination toward addiction. This discovery may go some way towards explaining why some addicts continue to experience cravings for their drug of choice and relapse throughout their lives, which previously baffled researchers. As Mark Greener writes for the wiley.com Online Library, “epigenetics is rapidly emerging as a leading contender for the mechanisms through which drugs of abuse induce some of the stable changes in the brain that underlie addiction’s persistence.”
It has been shown in studies with animals that factors such as exposure to drugs while in utero and stress during adolescent years seem to increase the risk for abuse later in life. Since epigenetic mechanisms regulate how the nervous system develops, chemical changes to that system known to accompany stress could affect the brain in ways that make it more vulnerable to addiction in later life.
Most genetic researchers are being cautious in proclaiming just how much good news there is for us in epigenetics, as far as “miracle cures” are concerned. They point out that despite extensive research and promising findings, many of the genes involved in addiction are so far “almost completely unknown”—meaning that it will most likely be several years before new treatments based on these discoveries reach the clinical level.
Others, however, are taking the epigenetic ball and running with it. There are addiction recovery centers in the United States and accredited physicians in major mainstream news outlets claiming that since the ways our genes express isn’t locked in place, gene expression can be altered in our favor by what we do, and even by what we think and feel. Some, such as Dr. Amy Shah, say that “There is medical evidence that we can control our appearance, health and vitality through our gene expression,” and that healthy practices such as exercise, nutrition, balanced sleep and mindfulness meditation can turn off harmful epigenetic effects and turn on desirable ones. The journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported a study of the effects of a single day of mindfulness meditation:
Over the course of 8 hours, an experienced group of meditators were asked to practice. When compared to a group of control subjects, the meditators displayed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes.
Everyone seems to be agreed that epigenetics and the medical discoveries that are likely to flow from it will play a major, beneficial part in healthcare in the future, including the treatment of addiction. But not everyone agrees that the kind of extreme optimism offered above has a solid basis in fact.
In an article from whatisepigenetics.com entitled “Epigenetics: Avoiding the Pull of Pseudoscientific Nonsense,” writer Bailey Kirkpatrick cautions us not to jump to conclusions:
Ultimately, the inconsistent evidence indicates to us that the molecular mechanisms by which these tags are inherited have yet to be understood. Currently, the evidence points to more questions than answers.
Bailey also points out that “there are currently no scientific articles exploring the ability of thought processes to directly impact gene expression via epigenetic mechanisms.”
All of this is a familiar song. For those of us seeking to explore life’s deeper dimensions, and discover for ourselves if our potential for healing, creativity and the development of consciousness are in fact greater that our current level of understanding might suggest—as the great spiritual traditions and individual testimony, ancient and modern, all attest—we always need to balance openness to the extraordinary and optimism toward possibility with intelligent, non-knee-jerk skepticism that recognizes that there will always be those who in all innocence, wishing to help, get out ahead of what is really known. And there will also be those who wish to enrich themselves by exploiting people’s pain and suffering with exaggerated promises. Humility is required to recognize both the limitations of our knowledge and how easily we can be fooled when we let our urgent needs get the better of our caution.
What spirituality and meditation have to offer us here is their constant pointing to a space in the mind and heart that is greater than the one in which our thoughts and feelings chase each other like squirrels trapped in a wheel, hope forever pursuing fear, with neither ever winning the race. As Zen Master Kosho Ushiyama writes in his classic text, Opening the Hand of Thought,
When we let go of our conceptions, there is no other possible reality than what is right now. This undeniable reality is the reality of life fundamentally connected to everything in the universe. Right now is all-important. Dwelling here and now, in this reality, letting go of all the accidental things that arise in our minds, is what I mean by “opening the hand of thought.”
The quality of mind that Ushiyama points us to is one in which the immediate richness of our experience is more important than the good and bad experiences that come and go through our lives, or the thoughts about them. It is a self-sufficient awareness that allows us to receive gifts with gratitude and trials with grace. Epigenetics and other scientific discoveries, such as neuroplasticity, do seem to suggest that some of the ancient advocacy for enhanced human transformation is real. If we can hold the space that Ushiyama and others recommend, we can accept whatever turns out to be the truth where these exciting possibilities are concerned.