Can Bad Genes Beat Good Lifestyle?

It’s a question of nature and nurture.

The ability of scientists to break the genetic code has provided an illusion that we now understand biology. We don’t. While today we have more knowledge than ever about health and fitness, we may never fully understand the complexity of these concepts.

We do, however, know a lot about how lifestyle plays a key role in quality of life. Yet, lurking deep in our bodies are genes that can disrupt it all. Whether this is just part of the natural selection process we also may never know.

The answer to the question of whether bad genes can negate a healthy lifestyle is yes. It’s the potential our bodies possess. While most people in the Western world today will die from preventable chronic diseases, much smaller numbers, about 5 percent, will succumb from similar conditions as dictated by genetics, such as cancer, seemingly immune to all the help a healthy environment or lifestyle can lend.

Certainly, a family history of certain conditions can increase one’s risk of those diseases. However, much of this may have to do with common environmental or lifestyle factors we shared with our parents and that are completely out of our control.

More importantly, improving lifestyle can overcome poor health as indicated by significant reductions in disease risk. But there are two sides to this genetic influence.

Big Bad Genes

We inherit genes from our parents, who inherited them from their parents, and so on. Like genes for eye and hair color, those responsible for disease — our inherited risk — arrive in us this way too, with the damage often showing up in past generations, sometimes extensively, although sometimes silent. In addition, genetic damage can occur through environmental stressors, mutations that may be more common in recent generations or during our own life, that are associated with breast, stomach, prostate and other cancers, for example.

In other words, these unhealthy environmental and lifestyle factors may have affected genes that were passed on to us, or our own genes directly within our lifetimes.

We can control most of our genetic influences significantly through environmental interactions. It’s the notion of nature and nurture — the never-ending story of striving to be better through better eating, exercise, stress regulation and other controllable, modifiable lifestyle factors. But what happens when bad genes beat the best of the best lifestyles?

We now know they exist, genes programmed with the real potential to drive our bodies into a quick, rapid death from cancer and other fatal conditions, often despite a healthy lifestyle and low disease risk. We don’t know when the condition will strike, if it does at all, or even if the possibility is there. Many conditions become evident earlier in life, with some waiting years. With today’s genetic testing, we are more privy to this potential. Examples of these known devastating genes that are rare but real include breast (BRCA), gastric and prostate cancers, those found elsewhere in the body, and some seen in childhood.

Environmental Toxins

Growing up in the years when companies created products that we later discovered to be toxic has very possibly caused changes within our genes. These include bright blue and pink food colors and tasty fake flavors, pesticides and herbicides, air-born chemicals from toys, tobacco smoke, mold and other side effects of cheap building materials, to mention just a few. There is no doubt that too many of these toxins can negatively impact those genes that cause disease. Warning or banning the use of these environmental hazards only occurred after the fact, in most cases. So large numbers of people were exposed to drugs, bad foods and other toxic chemicals. In some cases, we now know the impact, although more often the information quietly disappeared.

Today, air pollution is classified as a class 1 human carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Common cancer locations include not only lung, but those of the head and neck, breast, digestive tract, bladder and others. Moreover, air pollution can cause genetic mutations, which can be passed to offspring, who may, even if they avoid air pollution may still be affected by it.

Another common environmental toxin that affects our genes is synthetic folic acid, which can impact the development of most cancers. Through many years of exposure to this chemical, both as a dietary supplement and in food fortification, genetic changes have occurred in 30 percent or more of the population, a number that could easily reach 40 percent. The ensuing unmetabolized folic acid (UFA) in our blood and the associated folate deficiency caused by ingesting this chemical may significantly increase the risk of almost any cancer later in life.

Other environmental stressors that affect our genes continue to be questioned, especially electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from cell phones and other sources. There’s no argument that this form of radiation can be harmful, just how much is the question scientists are trying to answer.

Bottom line is that, except for trauma and infections, about 95 percent of people in the West die of preventable diseases and about 5 percent from genetic diseases not influenced by lifestyle that appear similar, with cancer as a common example.

I have to apologize for such a gloomy commentary, but felt the need to present this important perspective. The facts of life and death are part of being human. So is having fun and getting the most out of our lives while we’re here.


  • James says:

    Some people seem to have exceptional genes. I know a few athletes who train and live in a way that is almost totally opposite to what would be ‘optimal’ as described on this website and in other similar articles and books that are out there. Some people produce excellent athletic performances whilst eating refined carbs at almost every meal, training ‘hard’ – being unconcerned about an aerobic base phase, staying up late, fitting many hours of training around hectic work schedules, training through illness/injuries and still being faster than others who ‘do things right’, but hey I guess that’s just life!

  • Steve Altfillisch says:

    It wasn’t that gloomy. 5% is surprising low. I thought it would be more like 20%. The unknown is how much exposure to toxic chemicals when I was young. At least we had a garden, so I got pretty good nutrition.

  • Bill says:

    Well this made my day, along with a visit to the cardiologist and a stress test on a treadmill. Stress test was good reaching a better result with a lower heart rate than last year and no signs of chest pain but cholesterol is still too high at 2.9 (with the family history it needs to be 2.00 or below!). Apparently it is in my genes so I blame my parents! With that tongue in cheek comment it seems, at 53, my future depends on the RAT (Random Artery Tragedy) and the following blockage! I now feel like a ticking time bomb even though I run 70-100+km per month (this is a lot less than most people reading but an increase for me), have completed a half marathon this year and training for a full marathon in April next year.

    Oh well, sh!t happens!

  • CHANTAL says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article. Now being aware of this, would you recommend people have their DNA tested ? what if the test is positive for example for cancer ? is not knowing better than knowing ?

    • That particular question is one I’ve heard answered forcefully by people in the exact opposite ways. I would want to know. But the reasons that I might want to know may be exactly the reasons you wouldn’t. I wish I could tell you. I can’t.

    • May I recommend that you read “Overdiagnosed” by H Gilbert Welch et. al., then make your own informed decision?

      Welch is a physician and researcher. I listened to the Audible version and found it fascinating. To summarize, here’s what you’re dealing with:

      We now have massive programs that do screening (i.e., prostate, breast and other cancers, colonoscopy, general DNA testing, etc.) — that is, you’re just checking everyone or a defined population based on some statistical tendency.

      [This is distinct and opposed to clinical testing, which is to diagnose an observed or suspected condition — i.e., “I feel a lump,” or “there’s blood in my stool”, or “I have a sudden lack of energy”, etc. This type of testing is almost always warranted.]

      As technology “improves,” we can detect finer and finer gradations of what have been considered indicators of clinical disease. So what used to be detected by a visible lump, then could be detected via a scan that would maybe see anything over a centimeter, is now detectable at the microscopic level.

      These combine to create many more “diagnoses” of disease. So, you’ll see headlines of a sudden rise in a condition, but it could be just more people being screened. There are now several possibilities:

      1) you’ve caught a malignant condition early and can now prevent what would otherwise been a death or debilitating illness. This is where everyone (the press, medical community, advocates, lobbyists,etc.) generally pats themselves on the back and leaves the building.

      2) you’ve caught a malignant condition early, but you’re going to die anyway. I think I’d like to know if I was going to die from cancer in six months so I could get my affairs in order; but I can’t say I would like to know that I was certain to be dead in say, four years. What have I gained other than three and a half years of dread?

      3) I’m diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, but I’m probably NOT going to die from it. Now what?

      This is very common with prostate cancer. Most men will get it if they live long enough, but most will die of something else. Now I’ve got to make a treat/decline decision. Treating will certainly have severe consequences that may be totally unnecessary.

      Breast cancer, due to detection now getting down to the cellular level and DNA screening, is now on that path. Many “positives”, while indicating a condition or predisposition, would never end up causing death. Treating out of caution leads to unnecessary surgeries, medical costs, emotional stress, etc. or additional follow up testing and stress.

      When you see the reports of large increases in a disease, but the overall death rate doesn’t increase (again, prostate cancer), you are seeing “overdiagnosis.”

      Likewise, headlines about “5 year survival rate jumps!” can commonly be explained by the fact that if you can detect a condition 4 years earlier than previous technology allowed, the 5 year survival rate will jump even though life expectancy hasn’t been affected at all(!).

      Again, I recommend this book in particular, but generally it requires an individual, informed decision.


  • John Stewart says:

    Thanks Phil for taking the time to write this.
    Are there studies in how ones view on life affects ones health? And is this objectively possible?
    For example is there evidence that people can consciously change the effects of genetic predispositions through their own thoughts?

    • John:

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a study that asks that question in such plain terms. But there is a lot of science that surrounds that question. I’ll attempt to tackle your answer.

      One of the first things that you have to realize about genes is that they are used for everything. If you want to re-build a cell wall, produce a new antibody, repair an enzyme, etc. your cell has to pull open chromosomes, read a gene, transcribe it, and use a ribosome to create a protein.

      So, the big, big question in this article isn’t “Do I have certain BAD BAD genes.” The big question in the article is “Is my environment/stresses asking my cells to pull open the chromosomes and read the BAD BAD genes to transcribe a protein from them” (that will produce a function that harms my body). And this is what really has an effect. So, when you work out, or when you get stressed, or when you eat any food, the way in which your body responds to those changes in your lifestyle or food intake is by unzipping your chromosomes to read different genes that make sense for that different internal environment.

      Just to re-re-reiterate this, because it’s important: when you work out, you didn’t get stronger because you worked out. You got stronger because your body responded to its changing internal environment by going to the chromosomes and reading genes that allowed it to create proteins to repair itself, and to grow in response to the workout. When you eat certain foods, it has to create enzymes to break down those foods. It gets those enzymes by reading genes that allow it to create the proteins that it combines to build those enzymes. It has to read yet other genes that tell it HOW to combine those proteins. Etcetera etcetera. When you stop seeing certain events as stressful) they literally stop becoming stressors—which means that they stop stressing you, which means that your internal environment changes (fewer stress hormones, less oxidative stress, less inflammation), which means that the genes that are being read and reproduced are very different (and typically far more positive) than the genes being read in that stressed internal environment.

      This is really NOT AT ALL as simple as “think happy thoughts,” but it is to say that a concerted effort to change your environment in positive ways (leading to less stress, a better outlook, etc.) will have cascading effects on which genes become effectuated through proteins and which remain unread, uneffectuated, and therefore do not substantively impact your life.

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