by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
The set point — reprogramming your genes and cells
Everyone goes through life with a certain amount of “baggage” — an inheritance that’s both physical and emotional in nature. When it comes to our physical inheritance (our genes), many women feel that there’s not much they can do to change matters. But “DNA” doesn’t spell “destiny” — and we do have the ability to influence how our genes respond to our environment.
The conversation between your genes and your environment is particularly encouraging when it comes to weight loss. Women who struggle with their weight often feel as though they are pre-programmed to be heavy. So let’s learn how the metabolic “set point” works — and how we can change it.
What is the “set point”?
The job of a healthy metabolism is to keep a woman’s body at a set point, which is a body-to-fat ratio within a 10- to 15-pound weight range that optimizes her chances of survival. Set points are individualized and stubborn — your body likes stability — and your metabolism defends your set point by slowing down or speeding up when your weight approaches the outer limits of your set point’s range.
When the idea of a set point was first introduced, scientists believed it was immutable and determined by genetics. If your parents were “wired” to be skinny people, then you would be, too — and likewise, if you came from heavy-set people, it would be your eventual destiny to become overweight no matter how hard you fought it.
But in the past few decades it has become clear that the set point isn’t predestined and unchanging. In fact, your set point is also governed by your environment, even from the time you are growing in utero.
Research shows that a disturbed intrauterine environment (for example, due to the mother’s stress levels, a high-carb diet, nutrient deprivation, and drugs) can negatively influence the metabolism of the developing fetus, raising the potential for serious adult conditions like insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and more.
In other words, obesity does run in families, but it has as much or more to do with the mother’s health and weight during pregnancy than her genetics.
Obviously, you can’t do anything about what your mother did when she was pregnant with you, just like you can’t go back and exchange your genetic makeup. But what you can do — even if you have struggled with a high set point since before you were even born — is take steps that help your genes reset your metabolism. Such steps include lowering your stress burden, changing your diet, losing extra weight, and protecting your health long-term.
Has your lifestyle upset your set point?
In recent decades there has been an explosion in artificial foods and preservatives. The average American diet is also extremely high in sugar, refined grains, and bad fats. Our growing and harvesting methods strip our food of its nutrients, and pollutants, pesticides, and dangerous chemicals are all around us. We drive instead of walk, sit at desks instead of working outdoors, and the average food serving size has doubled. In short, we have lost a good quotient of our nutrition while dramatically increasing our toxic load and reducing our activity levels.
The modern American diet and lifestyle have sent the average set point soaring. We all hear it and see it on a daily basis: obesity is an epidemic. And not just in this country — over 300 million people worldwide were deemed “grossly overweight” in the year 2000, leading the World Health Organization to coin a new term: globesity. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
New research into the body-wide phenomenon of metabolic syndrome, or syndrome X, is proving that weight is a vastly more complex issue than measuring calories. Conventional ideas about weight loss are being supplanted by another school of thought — one that understands weight loss as a “universal” process and treats the body’s major functions, including neurochemistry, immune function, digestion, detoxification, musculoskeletal function, and hormonal balance, all at once.
Communicating with your genes: emotions, exercise, and food
In functional medicine, changes in health — good or bad — often reflect communication between your environment and the tissues, cells, and genes of your body. “Environment” in this sense means the physical world you live in; the food, air, and water that you take in as nourishment; and your emotional surroundings, past as well as present. Certain forms of communication can be healthy for one person but profoundly unhealthy for another, depending on our genetic blueprint. All this potential variation explains why some people can eat gluten or dairy and have no ill effects, for example, but others cannot, or why an acute illness or other stressor can precipitate all kinds of health problems where before there were none.
Yet while our genes may be tuned toward frequencies that promote ill health, including toxic weight gain, these communications can also be dialed down, or even turned off. The question my patients always ask me is, How?
- Emotional buttons — switching genes on or off
We’ve always known intuitively that laughter is the best medicine, but before now we haven’t really grasped why. Some of the most interesting research being done today is showing how gene expression can be altered by emotions. Studies of laughter therapy in type 2 diabetics showed that as many as 23 different genes were altered as a byproduct of laughter. Not only that, but the activity of several blood enzymes and their precursors changed as well, in ways that were beneficial toward preventing a range of metabolic imbalances.
So one of the ways that we can send positive signals to our genes, cells, and proteins is by cultivating positive emotions. At the same time, addressing sources of negative emotions — particularly trauma from our past that is a continual source of sadness, guilt, shame, or anger — can reduce the flow of negative messages to our genes and cells. (For further guidance, read Dr. Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotions.)
- Exercising regularly — and having fun
Exercise, too, has been shown to affect gene expression. When you start using your muscles more, genes within skeletal muscle cells respond by programming the production of different amounts of proteins and new muscle cells, along with changing metabolic processes. These changes are beneficial, for the most part, although it’s also possible to over-exercise — and when we do, that’s actually stressful for the body, and triggers cell damage.
I would also add that doing less intense exercise that you enjoy is probably more beneficial than too much high-intensity exercise that just isn’t fun, not only because you’re more likely to continue exercising regularly if you like what you’re doing, but because the boost you get from having fun adds to the benefit on all levels.
- Food as information
Today there’s an entire field of research called nutrigenomics, or “nutritional genomics,” investigating the effects nutrients have upon genes in both disease and health. The information our genes receive from our food can be a powerful way to “convince” them to respond in ways that are healthy — and it’s not so much about how much we eat (although obviously, overeating isn’t going to help anyone) than about what we eat. Food that is rich in phytonutrients and low in added sugars and chemicals speaks differently to our genes and cells than processed foods. A healthy diet of whole, organic foods reminds our genes and cells of how a healthy body should respond and supports smooth functioning of the body’s systems.
A recipe for “re-setting” your set point
It’s a revelation to many women that they can influence their genes and aren’t doomed to being overweight because of their heredity. For many women, this means changing long-standing ways of thinking or acting, and that can be difficult — but it’s far from impossible, and the benefits last a lifetime.
If you’re ready to have an enrolling conversation with your genes, there are several actions you can take to help fine-tune your set point:
- Look for the core imbalances that may lie at the heart of your original weight gain. It’s important to identify these health issues and imbalances, because until they’re addressed, you will have a tough time resetting your metabolic dial.
- Examine your emotional inheritance, particularly if you’re an emotional eater. Very few women in our culture go through life without ever experiencing a powerful, and often unhealthy, relationship with food. Understanding the feelings that trigger unhealthy eating habits can take you a long way toward changing those habits.
- Look for enjoyable ways to fit exercise into your routine — even if it’s for only 20 minutes or so. During that 20 minutes, try “bursting” four to six times — ramping up the intensity for about a minute — to boost your metabolism without over-exercising. Your body is built to move, so begin gently if you need to, and work up from there.
- Optimize your nutrition. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing effort — simple changes to your diet can reduce your toxic load and increase your nutrient intake. Taking a quality multivitamin–mineral and essential fatty acids will help fill common gaps. Emphasizing specific nutrients appropriate for your metabolic type will provide additional benefits in the long-term.
- Prepare yourself for change. Many women struggle with their weight because the day-to-day priorities of work and caring for others interfere with the changes they want or need to make. Often women get discouraged when their initial efforts fail. Luckily, we can make a fresh start with each new day. Our article on making life changes can help you learn to prepare for changes to improve your health.
- Laugh! Studies have shown again and again that a positive attitude and good sense of humor help many health conditions — and many of the imbalances that lead to weight gain have a strong stress component.
Start a healthy dialogue with your cells
It’s so important that women realize that we can communicate with our genes and get them to change their behavior — we talk to them all the time through our nutritional choices and the patterns of our emotions, whether we realize it or not. Where our metabolic set point and weight are concerned, we can start by having a conversation with our body — paying attention to our emotions, our nutrition, and our exercise.