Relax Your Way to Good Genetics? A case for more awe.

By Jade Robins, ND

I am intoxicated by the taste and smell of good coffee. Always have been. Ironically, I am also a homozygous (2/2 copies) carrier of the mutated CYP1A2 gene. Even one cup of coffee early in the morning will inevitably lead to a day full of jitters, agitation, and even much later, a very restless night of sleep. However, years ago while on a backpacking in Havasupai, Arizona I succumbed to my old vice and was pleasantly surprised when I did not have the same reaction. Since then, I have afforded myself the luxury of coffee while on vacation, and to my surprise….still, no negative effects.

But how could this be? I hypothesized that somehow it must be because I am so relaxed while on vacation, in a more care free state of mind away from the rigors of day to day life. But at the time, I did not have the scientific basis to understand or explain this phenomena.

Years later, while in medical school, my own naturopathic physician recommended 23andme genetic testing to me, piquing my interest in epigenetics and spurring my studies of this emerging field. Through my study, I came to more fully understand from a biochemical stand point how our detoxification pathways can either become impeded or sped up depending upon lifestyle habits (i.e. quality and quantity of sleep, diet, exercise, stress). Finally, I had the missing puzzle piece to this long ago asked question about my complex relationship with coffee. I was so excited and felt empowered to learn that our genes are actually quite fluid, and that we can actually influence whether they express or not.

We hear all the time about how “stress kills” or “you are what you eat”, but I have never been satisfied with generally accepted ideas or tag lines about health, no matter how true they may be. My own compliance has always lied with understanding, and one of our most important roles as physicians is “docere” or “doctor as teacher”, so I crave the understanding not only to improve my own quality of life, but also to arm my patients with the knowledge that will empower them to make more informed decisions regarding their own health.

On a broader scale, we can infer that if something as seemingly benign as coffee is more efficiently metabolized in a state of relaxation, than other more toxic substances are likely also better metabolized or “detoxed” in this same state. This is of particular interest and importance considering the significant toxic burden that we all face on a day to day basis in modern society.

So this begs the question, how do I get to this deep state of gene optimizing, detox promoting, relaxation in my day to day life? Positive psychology researcher, Jennifer Stellar, PhD, conducted a research study at the University of California, Berkley, where they measured pro-inflammatory cytokine, Interleukin-6, in response to 7 different positive emotions: amusement, awe, contentment, compassion, pride, love, joy. They hypothesized that inflammation would go down in the presence of these emotions, and it did. However, some emotions responded more strongly than others, with awe topping the list.

In her recent TEDMED talk Stellar asks “But why would awe be a better predictor of good health than other emotions? We don’t yet know.  It may be because awe is particularly potent at reducing stress, or increasing feelings of social connection. It may be because awe generates a desire to engage or explore the world around us. Recent work suggests that awe promotes greater humility, pro-sociability, and well being. And all of these things could impact physical health.”

So how do we go about increasing our sense of awe? A great way is travel. What better way to experience wonder, amazement, and awe than to experience new places, new people, new cultures. But, we don’t necessarily have to travel across the world to find this. Stellar states, “We feel awe when we encounter something vast and grand that challenges our world view. It makes us feel small in the presence of something bigger than ourselves and connected with others around us. We feel awe when we hear beautiful music, when we look up at the night sky and see the stars, or when we watch athletes achieve feats that we thought were beyond reality”.

As much as I would love to recommend that we all catch the next flight to the beaches of Hawaii or the mountains of Switzerland in search of awe, this may not be practical for everyone. Therefore, I submit, that you experiment with finding awe close to home. Take a trip to a museum you have not yet visited, check out your local music scene, go for a beautiful hike, sleep under the stars… Not only will this expand your sense of awe and wonderment, but it will also decrease your toxic burden, improve your genetic expression, and lead to an overall improvement of health and self.

***Full disclosure: I wrote this blog right after an amazing Thai massage in the picturesque village of Pai in northern Thailand. Therefore, my sense of awe and wonderment were at an all time high.