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Everyone knows about DNA, but did you know that the trauma of your ancestors can determine how your DNA is expressed? This is the study of epigenetics. Epi is a Greek prefix that means “on top of,” so while your actual DNA doesn’t change, the switches — so to speak — on top of them can turn things on and off.
One of the more talked about studies in the field involves mice and cherry blossoms. Male mice were shocked while the smell of cherry blossoms was pumped into their cages. Quickly, the male mice merged the smell with pain, resulting in them fearing the smell of the cherry blossoms. Their sperm was then used to impregnate female mice and those offspring were raised by other mice who had not been involved with the cherry blossom experiment. And still, those pups demonstrated a fear of cherry blossoms and had more receptors to alert them to the smell.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote, “the sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” Ibsen paraphrased in Ghosts that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children,” but in epigenetics this is a case of the past trauma of the fathers marking the present of their offspring. However, those markings can be lifted, as our epigenetic inheritance is not set in stone.
I recently learned that African American women have the highest baseline levels of cortisol in America — this makes sense when you look at the history of America regarding slavery. Slavery was a barbaric system that damaged the souls of all involved and is the root of the systemic racism we are still battling today. It was also a special type of Hell for Black women who not only endured the inherent degradation and abuse of the system but also physically gave birth to babies, that they may or may not have had the opportunity to mother, and who they knew were fated to be treated as no more than chattel.
Cortisol is a hormone that helps us manage stress, and since Black women today still reside at the intersection of misogyny and racism it’s no wonder that we are the most stressed. Therefore, our bodies respond as if we are constantly under attack, which is why heart disease is the number one killer of African American women. All of this makes me want to cry, especially since heart disease has killed or impacted almost everyone in my maternal line. But, as a believer in being able to turn poison into medicine, I have to marvel at how our ancestors survived the trauma of slavery and passed on the ability to manufacture so much cortisol down to us. It’s as if they were saying to future generations: “life is hard, you’re going to need this.”
As a believer in being able to turn poison into medicine, I have to marvel at how our ancestors survived the trauma of slavery and passed on the ability to manufacture so much cortisol down to us. It’s as if they were saying to future generations: “life is hard, you’re going to need this.”
By looking at the positive, I see this genetic inheritance as a way of our ancestors trying to enable us to overcome the trauma they experienced and whatever we might encounter. After all, they want us to survive and thrive. Every cell in every body wants to live, so really everything we have inherited is toward that end. So, we can respect why we are predisposed to certain ailments, and since the brain and the body are somewhat plastic in their ability to shift what traits are expressed, we have the power to transform our destiny, which I find incredibly encouraging.
As we all know, knowledge is power, so what can we do with the knowledge of our genetic and medical history? I believe the first thing we can do is to share. Today more and more people are doing genetic testing in preparation for having children or simply discovering their roots through DNA research, yet many families still don’t talk about their own personal health.
Recently, my mom had a cancer scare. I’ll tell you now that she’s totally okay, but in the days before that was confirmed we were anxious. It all began because her regular OB/GYN has stopped taking all forms of insurance and a visit would be $650 — and that was with a discount for having been a long-time patient. We love this doctor and I encouraged my mom to do what I do and just pay the money, then submit and get reimbursed by insurance. But, my mom refused and decided to go to another doctor.
During the visit, this new doctor felt a lump while conducting a breast exam. Unlike the previous doctor who knew my mom and her breasts, this person disregarded the annual mammogram appointment my mom had already scheduled and insisted she go to another center, because “they had surgeons.” This was tantamount to telling my mother that she had cancer and would definitely need surgery. This so-called physician didn’t ask if there was a history of cancer in the family — there isn’t. She didn’t ask if calcium deposits have ever shown up on previous mammograms — they have. And, she didn’t even request her previous mammograms to compare what she felt with my mother’s records or to even pass them on to the new imaging center. She also didn’t perform a proper pelvic exam or even have a table with stirrups. The shortcomings of this doctor during that visit could definitely fill another essay.
After my mom recounted this experience to me, I sprang into Doctor Daughter Mode. I got her records, got her to an imaging center I trusted and they confirmed what I felt in the first place, which was that the “lump” was merely a calcium deposit. Thank goodness and hallelujah.
In this age of oversharing everything from what we had for breakfast to what we think and feel about things of debatably minor importance about people we don’t know, it’s curious that most people remain silent when it comes to their health — be it physical or mental. This silence is costly and the ultimate payment can be death.
But, what was interesting was my mom’s first inclination not to tell her sisters about the lump until she knew for sure what it was. Mind you, my mom cannot keep a secret — I know what I’m getting for every birthday and Christmas on the day the present is bought, and sometimes when she’s just thinking of buying it. If you tell her a secret she will have told someone before you are done telling her. So, I knew she wouldn’t actually keep this from her sisters, but I was surprised that she even thought about it.
In this age of oversharing everything from what we had for breakfast to what we think and feel about things of debatably minor importance about people we don’t know, it’s curious that most people remain silent when it comes to their health — be it physical or mental. This silence is costly and the ultimate payment can be death. My favorite uncle died from heart failure at age 49 — no one in the family, including his wife and kids, even knew he had a heart problem. But, we discovered later that he knew and chose to keep the information to himself. Years later, his son, my cousin, also died from heart failure in his mid-30s.
Of course, my mom told her sisters the very day of that terrifying appointment, and discovered that they too had calcium deposits and one had even had to have a biopsy. Thankfully, they’re all fine, but why hadn’t they shared this before? I don’t know if the thought of cancer was even scarier than the various forms of heart conditions they already have in common and are managing well. Regardless of the reasons, families need to talk about their health together.
All of us, related or not, need to share what has happened to us behind the closed doors of the doctor’s office. We all need to educate ourselves on our family history since any familial health challenges could be a great indicator of what we might need to work to avoid. We also need to understand the deeper tendencies our biology holds and actively work to transform or enhance what we already have.
Now, back to the mice and the cherry blossoms: further studies showed that the mice could be reconditioned not to fear cherry blossoms, which also means that we humans can also reset or turn off whatever epigenetic traits might be running in the background that we don’t need. Whether that reset takes the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, incorporating yoga, qigong, or working with a functional medicine doctor to up your supplement game, let’s do whatever it takes to live the long healthy life our ancestors were trying to provide. And, to my African American sisters, I’d say we especially need to take some regular deep breaths and get some serious good sleep because it takes more than cortisol to change the world.