The Epigenetics of Well-Being
Dr. Steven Cole is the Director the UCLA Social Genomics Laboratory. He has been pioneering human social genomics as a Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. Cole’s studies have concentrated on Genomics and computational bioinformatics to map the biological pathways by which social environments affect gene expression by viral cancer and immune cell genomes.
[After years of studying misery and death] Is this all there really is in Human Life? Can’t we say something that would be helpful?
Epigenetics of Wellbeing
Biological effects of stress
Our bodies are not built to be stressed out and miserable all of the time. We are only capable of handling stress in short bursts. Yes, some stress may be good for us but over time, increased amounts of stress can lead to damage of our immune systems and molecules that affect our natural ability to maintain the balance of ‘Fight or Flight’ and ‘Rest and Digest’.
Looking at the genomics of humans
Naturally, we have about 20,000 DNA molecules, what Dr. Cole likes to call ‘menu items’ in which our body can decide to ‘order-up’. During certain states, our bodies natural turn these items on or off. Our DNA is being transcribed into RNA and produces proteins that do the work of a cell. Physically, our bodies recognize what our bodies need.
Some examples of the tasks of these proteins are:
- To understand our environment (aka. Our senses)
- To make up the inside of our skull
- To control the transcription of genes and ‘self-write’ the ‘book’ of a single person.
Only about half of our genes are actively transcribed into RNA. When a cell needs to change which, proteins are expressed and active the DNA is called and transcribed. The problem is, if we are always in fight or flight mode and more cells are needed to be transcribed, we will be losing out on many other proteins.
An example of a functional cell change is when we are very hungry and haven’t been able to eat for a while. Our bodies understand that our metabolism needs to change and typically, in this case, it would slow. Other biological systems that are affected are our immune responses which allow for more infections. Many times, the symptoms we get are caused by our immune responses producing these cells. For instance, when you roll an ankle, your body’s response is to swell up to protect it.
The human genome has options. It needs to decide which genes to express and which genes not to express
Social Environment related to stress
Figuring out the human response is a delicate balance. It our body gets it right, great, life continues with the circumstances it endures. If it gets it wrong, our bodies suddenly go into a wild goose chase. Unfortunately, many times we don’t even notice it. Internally, an antiviral response could be responding to a bacterial infection but instead of helping to fight off the bacteria, the new bacteria created just adds to the problem. Therefore, sometimes our body’s decision making process can have big consequences.
Dr. Cole has been studying within his labs ways to counteract the biological fight or flight response. He explains there is a combination occurring of methylation and acidulation as well as Post translational and post transcription processes.
Certain proteins act as the eyes and ears of our cells. Therefore, the translational factors and processes activate specific functions and uses the information from the outside world to balance our DNA. Methylation and acidulation block this response and convey information and veto the receptors decisions.
Our systems interact with the world in different ways. One way is a physical interference. The example Dr. Cole provides is getting bit by a saber tooth tiger. Your body needs to physically repair the damage. The other is the informational and constructed world and affect our outlook on life. It’s like our retinas, they create a picture of what is out there in the world and what we are understanding or thinking.
Without even realizing it, our atomic nervous systems change how our bodies work. Cole and his studies have discovered opportunities that could provide intervention:
- Changing contemporary life
- Adapting and assessing health risks
- Perception of Things – not necessarily what is actually in the world.
- Interpreting the world at a manageable state
- Understanding and handling environmental conditions.
Experiencing your-self and your molecular self
A lot of times we might not feel stressed, but our bodies are still in a stressed state. Our conscious experience isn’t always accurate on a biological level. You have two sides: What you are feeling, seeing, touching, thinking, and then how your body is operating. This operation system includes a crazy infrastructure that we don’t always know how to understand. If you’re not in tune with what is inside you may have a hard time recognizing the balance of perception and reality.
Perception is critical
If our bodies don’t know when to relax or when to protect us, this is a very critical disruption. Are we safe and healthy? Or are we being threatened? These decisions have significant implications. Over decades of stressors, our bodies take prolonged inflammation and endorphins which can result in cancer and diseases. Often, if we experience this prolonged stress, we become used to it. There is even animal evidence that proves that if you are exposed to some stress there is increased longevity. The ideas behind this on a human scale are if you are never exposed to stressors until a change occurs, this change might not be able to be handled by the mind or body. Circumstance changes everything.
Regardless to whether or not our conscious [minds] are paying attention to it, or bodies are doing it.
Hedonic and Eudemonic
No one wants to always feel like they are on the run. Our bodies can’t sustain uncertainty and threats for long periods of time. So how should we live instead?
Some of the thoughts of contemporary thinkers – hedonic approach – are…
- “Don’t worry, be happy”
- Have Positive emotions
- Watch Beautiful things
- Hear beautiful people
- Eat wonderful food
- Get yourself into a calm state of mind
- Do things that feel good for you
Aristotle’s – eudemonic – way of thinking on ways to live a good life are…
- Don’t only invest in your personal, positive emotion state – serve others
- Good comes from doing virtue
- Do good for the well-being of society, other people, and man-kind
- Don’t just focus on one person
- Transcendence of experiences – pass them on
For example, someone may dream of climbing Mt. Everest but so that all humans can say we have done this and experienced the highest possible point in the world.
Dr. Cole partnered with Dr. Barbara Fredrickson to test the differences between hedonic and eudemonic ways of living. During the podcast with Dr. Cole we heard that just feeling happy was not enough to drive changes in our biological operating systems. We needed to do something bigger – something Nobel and meaningful.
Even astrophysicist, Josh Mittledof, studying the mathematical models of aging has found that we focus on the benefit of the community, not survival of the fittest. Dr. Cole followed up later to explain the tests he did showed that people with more of a Eudemonic – best for the community way of thinking were much more physiologically healthy than hedonic. Hedonic persons were even less healthy than those with low-levels of well-being.
Most of the things we think would be true, turn out not to be true once you check the details.
As Dr. Cole does not meditate himself, he did acknowledge that there as been proven small amounts of changes in biological physiology to improve stress management.