Are you afraid of your genes? I was!
What are the odds that you’re going to develop some scary disease if it runs in your family? That’s the bottom-line question you’re asking yourself if you’ve got a genetic legacy of health issues. And the next question is, can you do anything about it?
For me, I’ve decided I can do something about it, and live free of the fear.
In my recent family history, I've had three family members die relatively young from pulmonary fibrosis of idiopathic origin. In other words, their lungs deteriorated very quickly, and nobody knows exactly why. This has all occurred in a span of about five years, and nobody can remember anything like this happening in my family before.
That was certainly enough to strike fear into family members, wondering what's going on, and who's next? It hit home for me as well. The last cousin to pass was the one that I was closest to. Watching him enveloped by indecisiveness and fear in his last months was not something that I wanted for myself. Being the physician in the family, I dutifully played my role in helping everyone through the final months of his life. For about a year after, I harbored my own suppressed fears and uncertainty about what this meant for me.
I don’t have any specific health issues that make me think that I should develop the same fate. However, at the end of the day, the real issue is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of suffering, and a sense of helplessness.
The following are the key lessons I’ve learned in my journey since.
First, while my well-being isn’t solely defined by the physical, the physical is still a reality and does need to be addressed. After learning Ayurveda, it has become the lens through which I see the world. Knowing my constitution is pitta-kapha, I know that the fire, water, and earth qualities tend to predominate in my nature. That means the heavy, dense, inflammatory qualities that go with an imbalanced pitta-kapha constitution could lead to the type of issues that my relatives experienced.
So I've incorporated into my diet principles to balance kapha and pitta (particularly kapha), being very careful with heavy foods, cold dairy, and cold, difficult-to-digest meals. I have also made pranayama (breathing techniques) and exercise a regular part of my routine. I do an Ayurvedic detox cleanse at least twice a year, and I take supportive herbal supplement blends, like Pippali, Tulsi, and licorice.
Beyond this, I started to reflect on why I do all this. It's because Ayurveda believes in the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Even if something is carried in our genes, or we’ve made choices in diet and lifestyle thus far that haven’t served our health, we can still turn it around. Our cells are continuously renewing and regenerating. While it takes several years for all the cells of an organ to completely turn around, it means that the changes we make in our diet and lifestyle impact us at the most microscopic level.
The buzz in the field of genetics is around epigenetics: the concept that even though something is encoded in our genes, it doesn’t necessarily have to get expressed. It takes “keys” — often from our diet and lifestyle and environmental exposures — to actually turn the genes on and off. So just because something is passed down in your genes doesn’t mean it's your destiny.
Finally, I started to take notice of the mind-body connection. I noticed that in my meditation practice, the occasional irregularities in my breathing would calm and release. It's when I am holding tension and stress, rooted in not accepting “what is” and instead trying to “will” my way through this world, that my body responds with subtle signs of imbalance. It is what all the masters teach — 100% effort, then 100% acceptance of the results, even if the results are different from what I anticipated — because they're all my teachers.
I have in this acceptance found so much more peace and joy — not because my world has changed, but because I continue to change. In the end, if I have to face a physical illness, it's not my true identity, and it's not my enemy. It's my teacher, to bring me to a greater understanding of Truth. In college, I learned that some of the toughest teachers were the ones I appreciated most… why should I fear the tough teachers now?