DNA and Choice

For those of you who I haven’t seen in a few months, I have news to share: my husband and I are expecting a baby!

I am six months pregnant with our first child, and what a journey these six months have been for me: Nearly constant nausea in the first trimester . . . the adventure of hormonally influenced emotions . . . developing a relationship with a miraculous, unseen being growing inside me . . . a deepening of trust and newness of purpose with my life partner (the photos in today’s letter are from our recent Southwest “babymoon”).

I have many questions about how we will raise our child, a full gamut of fears and hopes, and these first steps in motherhood prove grand new territory for me to explore what and how I create in this world. It’s both a vulnerable and empowering time.

My reflection this month has particular poignancy for me as I wonder how I will influence my child’s life. I’ve been intrigued for quite some time by the field of epigenetics, a relatively new field of science that studies gene expression. We all keep the DNA we are born with, but studies in epigenetics have shown that the way those genes act, or express themselves, can change over the course of our lifetimes, and those changes in gene expression are passed on to our children (and, perhaps, their children and so on). It’s a whole ‘nother angle on the old nature v. nurture question, with findings that heartily answer “yes” to both.

One of the leading scientists in this field, Rachel Yehuda, and her colleagues have conducted studies on multiple groups of people with post-traumatic stress disorder: Holocaust survivors and their children, 9/11 survivors and their children, survivors of famine and their children. These studies have shown that the alterations of certain genes’ expression in response to trauma are passed down to offspring who never directly experienced that trauma.

These epigenetic changes can be negative (one study showed that children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD were three times more likely than other people to develop PTSD in response to trauma in their own lives). But the changes can also be positive, as in an increased resilience in response to difficulty. In fact, the same adaptation can be either positive or negative, depending on the environment the person is in. In one interview, Yehuda gave the following example:

. . . if a mother was in Auschwitz and was starving and transmitted the biology to the offspring—it’s a biology that allows your liver to hang on to free cortisol and not have it converted to inactive cortisol, so that you can effectively get by with less fuel—that would be a fantastic thing for an offspring to have under periods of starvation. But if the offspring lives in a country where a breakfast bagel can feed a family of two for a day, there is a mismatch between that biology and what has been given.

What first piqued my interest in these studies was how much they resonate with what I have come to know as true in my journey with healing work. We arrive in this life with certain given tools, but if we open up to new perspectives on the patterns in our lives, we can actually choose to use those tools differently. And, it turns out, the science of epigenetics shows just how deeply those choices can change things on a physical level—in our own automatic responses and in future generations’.

In this healing work I practice, we work on many levels at a time, including both the physical and the relational. Many of you who have come for a session have experienced how profoundly this work can change both your physical body and your approach to situations. But it’s easy to wonder howhands-on work can change our physicality. Epigenetics is one field that begins to offer some explanations.

Yehuda says it well, “Feel empowered, because science has shown us that you can change a lot of what you don’t like, or override a lot of what you can’t change.” It is possible to alter your DNA’s expression based on your response to your environment—and we once thought DNA to be one of the most unchangeable parts of our beings.

Now, obviously, these changes are happening on at least a micro-scale all the time, wherever we go. But it is exciting to know that if placing yourself in a new environment can alter your gene expression, then doing something like hopping on a healing table with the intention for your world to be different can be an incredible way to choosethe environment and howyou change. Or even to strengthen the influence of a gene expression you already have and like.

This is also exciting to me because it affirms that we are all engaged in the act of creation, all the time, on the physical level. We don’t just have to take what is handed to us. If we can take what was handed to us and look at it squarely for what it is, we then have the opportunity to choose something new, whether that be in the expression of disease in our bodies or in the way we respond to stressors in life, perhaps even the way we interact with the larger political sphere.

I also have great hope for my son or daughter, and really, for all those who come after us. S/he will inherit patterns from me. S/he will inherit my genes, and those of my parents and grandparents (and back and back on both sides of my husband’s and my families). But as s/he dances into life, my child will also have the opportunity to reinvent those genes and do something new with them that our family has never done before. I have the chance to do the same, as long as there is breath in my body. We all do.

This incredible power of choice brings great responsibility and risk of disaster, as we see in our world all around us, but we also see that it offers great possibility for renewal and regeneration. I hope each of us continues to discover and empower the creative potential in our own lives.