A few weeks ago, a young man stayed up late to watch his favorite show. He knew his sleep would suffer, but the young man couldn’t resist the lure of money, sex, intrigue, scandal, and superb writing promised by Billions. And so the young man plopped on his couch, got comfortable, and watched Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis light up the screen for the better part of an hour.
The next morning, the young man was tired. He couldn’t focus on his morning tasks, and he dragged through his evening workout like a crippled sloth. Sure, the young man mused, the episode was good, but it could have waited. And it certainly wasn’t worth feeling lousy over.
Do you know who the young man was?
It was Dustin Johnson, the #1 golfer in the world.
Okay fine. It wasn’t DJ. It was me. But you knew that already.
Cramming in the Pleasure
When making decisions, we often neglect our future self. The pull of instant gratification can overwhelm us, causing us to forget our longer-term interests. Billions trumps sleep. Social media trumps actual, productive work. You know what I’m talking about.
And there’s nothing wrong, of course, with a little mindless entertainment now and again. But a little is never enough. That’s just how our pleasure-seeking brains work.
“Because life is short,” wrote the philosopher Alan Watts, “human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.”
Yes, life is short, but we’re only making it shorter by sacrificing sleep for screen time. By losing sleep, we put our genes into wacky survival mode, not long-term perfect health mode. That’s because our circadian rhythm, our wake / sleep cycle, controls much of our genome. Without proper light, sleep, exercise, and food, our genes get confused – and that’s bad for our health.
Talking to your genes
Genetic expression – the programmable function of every cell in our body – is largely dictated by how we move through the world. Our genes, in other words, respond to our behaviors. This is good news, because it means we can control our health outcomes by dialing in our sleep, nutrition, and exercise programs.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for instance, are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. The evidence against these genes was strong enough, in fact, that genetic testing company 23andMe just added BRCA1 and BRCA2 to their standard health report. But here’s the crucial piece: BRCA1 and BRCA2 are not guarantees of cancer, nor is their absence particularly protective against cancer.
What is protective against cancer? Lifestyle. What you eat, your activity levels, sleep quality – all that stuff is what matters most.
“Far from being written in stone,” writes genetic expert Dr. Ben Lynch, “your genetic destiny is more like a document written in the Cloud – you get to edit and revise it, every moment of your life.”
We are the editors. We send the message, and our genes respond accordingly.
Here are a few behaviors that send the wrong message to our genes:
- Sacrificing an extra hour of sleep to watch Billions
- Chronic stress
- Too much screen time, at work or otherwise
- Not eating enough folate (impairs proper methylation via the MTHFR gene)
- Not buying local or organic food due to price or hassle
- Eating a cookie or drinking a soda
- Staying indoors all day under lights too dim to mimic daylight and too bright to mimic darkness
- Sitting too much
Some of these behaviors are more fixable than others. If you’re strapped for cash, for example, you might balk at the price of grass fed beef or organic kale. That said, I’m not exactly rich, yet I always buy organic greens and local, pasture-raised meats. I mean, if you want to avoid glyphosate – a scandalous herbicide and probable carcinogen – organic greens are pretty much non-negotiable.
Do what you can
The notion that we control our genetic expression – in other words, our health – is not exactly mainstream yet. It sounds like something out of the future. And maybe in the future, doctors will actually talk about supporting our genes with healthy lifestyle.
But for now it’s up to us. We can’t control the genes we’re born with, but we can control how they express themselves. We can, as Ben Lynch would say, “clean up” our genes for optimal expression.
You probably know the top 2 or 3 behaviors in your life that are sending your genes the wrong message. So start there, and fix what you can.
For my part, I’m a little sad that this season of Billions is over. My genes, on the other hand, couldn’t be happier.
Lynch, Ben. Dirty Genes: A Breakthrough Program to Treat the Root Cause of Illness and Optimize Your Health. HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951.
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