We have all contemplated the argument of nature vs nurture. Somewhere along the line we have all responded to a problem with, “that’s just a part of my genes!” Whether it is through a diagnosis of high cholesterol or an emotional outburst that leads to a bit of embarrassment and shame, we have all used this tactic to avoid responsibility from our actions. So can our choices really affect our outcomes? The answer in both modern science and Ayurveda is overwhelmingly yes. In this paper we will discuss the similarities of what modern science is discovering and what Ayurveda has been teaching and practicing for millennium. The science is called Epigenetics. We will learn about the three types of epigenetic categories – DNA Methylation, Histone Modification and RNA Alteration. We will also discuss three topics in Ayurveda and relate to the science of epigenetics – Prakruti vs. Vikruiti, Dinacharya, and the Three Causes Disease – Prajnaparadha, Asatmendriyartha Samyoga, and Parinama.
In order to understand epigenetics we must first talk a bit about genetics. Genetics is the study of heredity and heredity is the science by which we pass certain genes to our offspring. Every child inherits a set of chromosomes from both the mother and the father that predetermines us to a certain set of physical traits and also tendencies to develop certain disorders and disease. These chromosomes carry thousands of important genes that make us each a unique individual. Genes comprise about 29% of the human genome. The human genome contains roughly 20,000 to 25,000 genes. 1 Each cell contains a complete DNA but the genes differ in cells to be able to perform different functions. Genes can also be activated and/or altered by external stimuli such as infection or stress. This leads to the study of epigenetics.
Genetics vs epigenetics is like writing a good book vs reading a good book. When you write a book, it is on paper. It is published and those words hold true no matter how many copies are distributed. Reading a good book on the other hand is quite different. Determining the merit of a good book is completely subjective after the basics of good writing are employed. A good book is based on the perspective of the reader – their physical state, emotional tendencies and even where they grew up will have an effect on whether that person will consider it to be a good book. That’s epigenetics – everything that can be altered in a person’s environment can alter the experience and modify the outcome. Bruce Lipton, an international leader in stem cell biology described the difference like this. “The fundamental difference between the old DNA genetic code and the new epigenetics is that the former notion endorses genetic determinism–the belief that genes predetermine and control our physiological and behavioral traits–while epigenetics recognizes that our perceptions of the environment, including our consciousness, actively control our genes.” 2
Epigenetics literally means Epi – “above” and genetic – “origin”. Above the origin. So epigenetics is the study of the process by which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism: specifically, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences or other mechanisms without a change to the DNA sequence. 3 To explain this simply it means that the cells of our body can behave and respond differently based on particular environmental factors. The cells in our body each have a certain function. Some are designed to produce tissue. Other are designed to create enzymes. Others are there to clean up waste that has been produced. Whatever the function of the cell there is a surface receptor that bonds with an extracellular molecule to trigger the cell into behaving a certain way. For example, there are receptors for insulin to bind to a cell. If the receptor sites are not working properly and the extracellular molecule can’t bind with that particular cell then our body malfunctions. This would happen in the case of the hormone insulin not binding with the cell which creates a deficiency of insulin being produced, thus Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.
So why does this happen? This is the study of epigenetics. There are infinite reasons we can postulate as to why a certain cell behaves or doesn’t behave. What science is teaching us is that our environment has a huge role in this. Everything we bring into our body from our five senses plays an integral part in how our body responds. It makes sense if a person listens over and over again to very loud music they can damage the tissues in the ears and thus cause hearing problems. The same principle applies to what physical substances go into our bodies. If we are exposed to lead based paint it seems logical that lead will enter the body and thus create a lead toxicity that our body does not know how to respond to. Here are four key things to know about Epigenetics:
- • Epigenetics Controls Genes. Certain factors in life can cause genes to be turned on or off. Genes may lie dormant in the body or become altered by epigenetic factors that will cause genes to express in a certain way.
- • Epigenetics Is Everywhere. Everything you eat, touch, smell, hear, or feel can cause chemical modification in your body altering your genes. Even how you sleep, how you exercise and how you age will affect how your body transcribes the genes. Certain diseases are brought on by a malfunction of genes from a healthy state to a disease state.
- • Epigenetics Makes Us Unique. Epigenetic factors can be passed down from generation to generation but also, epigenetics is responsible for the little things that make us all unique. Why do some of us dislike the taste of olives? Why are some of us better listeners? This all has to do with epigenetics.
- • Epigenetics Is Reversible. With over 20,000 genes in our body the different combinations are enormous. With the science of epigenetics we can begin to map out genes that keep us in a healthy state and eliminate those bad genes that have been plaguing humans over the course of time. There is real possibility to map cures for certain cancers, autoimmune disorders, and many other debilitating diseases.
Our body is constantly reacting to the external ingredients of our life. Many times, our body does an amazing job of handling substances that it does not recognize. The smooth endoplasmic reticulum of the liver is responsible for metabolizing and processing foreign substances to be excreted from the body. The liver processes both the endogenous chemicals such as cholesterol, hormones, fatty acids as well as the exogenous substances we put into our bodies including drugs, alcohol, and food additives. If we overwhelm our bodies with foreign substances then we will naturally tire out the forces of the body trying to metabolize and excrete these substances. Thus, our body will eventually stop responding to certain actions which will in turn lead to disease. In epigenetic research, scientists are researching how different factors are changing the potential for disease states without changing DNA sequencing. Three main mechanisms are DNA methylation, histone modification and RNA alteration. These changes are all potentially reversible. Modern science is proving that the path of personalized therapy can affect disease screening and prevention strategies.
Epigeneticists study molecular changes including DNA methylation. This is a chemical process that adds a methyl group to DNA. This is a fancy way for explaining that our environment and experiences can subtly alter our gene activity. Genes turn “on” and turn “off” when we are exposed to certain chemicals, man-made poisons, and — perhaps most surprisingly — emotional experiences, which can make us more or less susceptible to particular health problems. 4 When these methyl groups attach to certain DNA it affects the way the DNA acts thus changing the outcome of cellular functioning. Michael K. Skinner, a professor at Washington State University and the founding director of the Center for Reproductive Biology in the School of Biological Sciences states, “Genetics is part of the story, an important part of the human story,” says Skinner. “But epigenetics, that is the other half of the equation.” 5 Dr Skinner’s work has been notable in the world of epigenetics. One of his most notable studies was on the chemical compound DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). DDT was first developed as an insecticide and used widely in WWII to control outbreaks of malaria and typhoid. Post WWII it was used as a pesticide on agricultural crops. Years later genetic and epigenetic research has found a host of health problems associated with the use of DDT and DDT was finally banned in 1974. His study on rats being exposed to DDT showed that the initial group of rats exposed had elevated levels of certain diseases but by the time the grandchildren of these rats came around there was a 90% chance that these rats would experience obesity, have low sperm counts and even more serious health problems. 6 In the US after WWII, DDT was used widely as a chemical sprayed on crops to reduce insect infestation. The substance was banned in the early 1970’s but three generations later there is a noted increase in many of the associated health problems including cancer, low sperm counts and human obesity.
Histones are primary proteins of chromatin and they combine with DNA to make chromosomes. Histones are wrapped around the DNA. They essentially organize the DNA in the cell. If the histones are modified from any outside influence, they can influence how a chromatin is arranged and thus change the way the DNA will be transcribed. 7 This tells us that our DNA can essentially either work or not work depending on the protein modification happening in the body. These alterations are then passed down from generation to generation. These changes in our modification levels can be seen with research which correlates to heightened levels of breast cancer, prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. Research is being done to study the predetermined risks associated with these types of cancers. Epigenetics not only has the ability to work with diseases such as cancer, scientists are also using epigenetics to study autoimmune disorders, neuropsychiatric disorders and pediatric syndromes. These diseases all have roots in the DNA but have experienced changes within the epigenetic layer that produces faulty cellular functioning.
RNA, particularly microRNA’s, has its roots at the post transcriptional level. Micro RNA’s are non-coding RNA that regulates gene expression. Theses microRNA’s are primarily responsible for normalizing cell function. They are a “blueprint” for the cell to form in a certain way. MicroRNA can also be affected by environmental factors that can alter the blueprint for the cell thus making it behave differently than intended. These RNA have the ability to turn on and off their DNA making them functional or dormant depending on the signals. 8
So what does this have to do with Ayurveda? Everything. Ayurveda is the study of life science. Ayu – meaning life and Veda – meaning science or knowledge. This science has been witnessed and practiced for 5000 years since the ancient Vedas were written. Ayurveda believes that the origin of disease is rooted in one key phrase, “Forgetting our true nature as spirit.” This can be further explained by understanding a little bit of Sankhya philosophy. Purusha desires to know its own nature and merges with Prakriti. What unfolds is the creation of the individual soul. It is believed that disease unfolds when a person forgets their true nature as spirit. This happens at every incarnation. At each incarnation there is a storehouse of karma that is stored in the causal body. When incarnation occurs the ahamkara takes form into an astral body where disturbance originates. These disturbances of the mind called vrittis upset the balance of a person which then manifests into the physical body as disease states. 9 In one of the most classically cited books on Ayurveda, the Caraka Samhita states, “The soul is essentially devoid of all pathogenecity…” 10 once we forget our true nature as spirit we then can start manifesting disease in the astral body. These disturbances that begin in the mind then start affect the physical body creating imbalance to the doshas.
Conventional medicine has relied on symptomatic treatment of disease where Ayurveda looks deeper to the root of the problem. It is well established that western allopathic medicine is excellent at handling acute medical crisis. They can reattach limbs, replace joints, put in stints, etc. Conventional medicine has its weakness though in terms of managing chronic conditions related to diet and lifestyle such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity. They are aware there needs to be improvement in public health and affordable primary care functions. Ayurveda has successfully shown how to manage chronic disorders that affect so much of our modern culture. Ayurveda’s holistic approach to treating the mind, body and soul as a complete person has the potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing health problems. Modern medicine has seen this need for personalized medicine and Ayurveda offers the path which plays a key role towards disease prevention through diet and lifestyle. By taking the knowledge of modern science and combining it with the roots of Ayurveda, there is an opportunity to change the course of some of the most plaguing disorders of the modern world today.
Prakruti vs. Vikruti
We are born into this world with a predetermined set of tendencies. Our Prakruti in Ayurveda roughly resembles our DNA, or our genes, in western medicine. Each us of is born with a unique constitutional balance. This is known as our prakruti. In Ayurveda the individual constitution, or Prakruti, is based on physical and psychological characteristics. “Prakriti is a corollary of the comparative proportion of three entities, i.e., Tridoshas, namely, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. This is not only genetically determined (Shukra Shonita), but also influenced by environment (Mahabhuta Vikara), chiefly by maternal diet and lifestyle (Matura Ahara Vihara), and the age of the parents (Kala Garbhashaya). Ethnicity (Jati), familial characteristics (Satmya), as well as place of origin of an individual (Desha) are also considered to influence the development of Prakriti…” 11 Prakruti is determined by our parents’ nature, as well as the circumstances of our birth. Our mother’s emotional and physical state, the season, and location of our birthplace are all determining factors in our prakruti. According to Ayurveda this happen at the moment of conception and the lifestyle of our mother will play a role in the development of the offspring but the seeds of karma are also a factor in determining the tendency of the offspring. 12
So if our Prakruti is roughly related to our genes then our Vikruti is roughly related to our phenotype in Epigenetics. 13 Our Vikruiti is defined as the nature of the imbalance. It is our current state. Prakruti is determined at the moment of conception and our Vikruti is the present state of the person. To get from point A (Prakruti) to point B (Vikruti) there can be any number of changes and those changes relate to epigenetic factors that include sensory input from the outside world. This includes diet, lifestyle, visual input, sensory stimulation, emotions, as well as many other environmental factors. According to Ayurveda, any state that is not at Prakruti is a state of dis-ease and in order to treat this one must know the nature of the patient, the nature of the disease and the nature of the remedy. 14 Dis means having a negative or reversing force. Ease means free from difficulty, effort, or trouble. Dis-ease, therefore, is a negative reversal of the flow of ease.15
Western science looks at this a little differently. Western science believes that the offspring is a combination of the genes of the mother and the genes of the father. This creates a unique DNA of a child that will be different than any other person on the planet, the only exception being genetic twins. This has been the basis for Personalized Preventative Medicine (PPM) in the modern world. Ayurveda is filling the gap for personalized medicine as it relates to the individual in accordance with diet and lifestyle, season, time of life, and individual tendencies. Personalized Preventative Medicine PPM has been at the forefront of study in recent times. Modern science is realizing that epigenetic factors (i.e. diet, lifestyle, season, time of life, and individual tendencies) are directly influencing drug response. Ayurveda commonly describes its medicine in terms of its rasa, virya, vipaka, and prabhav. This will have a unique effect for each person as it relates to their prakruti or individual constitution. As modern science is learning drug reactions are found on an individual basis independent from that of any ethnic, racial or geographic grouping. 16
Western medicine is extremely good at treating acute issues and highly technological support such as joint replacement. But the leading causes of mortality in the world are directly related to issues of non-harmonious lifestyle, poor nutrition and stress. Modern medicine treats the symptom of the underlying ailment whereas Ayurveda is treating the root of the imbalance. Ayurveda analyzes the person with relation to their mind as well as their physical body to determine the correct treatment of the imbalance. This imbalance is not a factor of changing DNA rather an epigenetic factor that can be modified in relation to the patient’s actions and environment. The Caraka Samhita states that disease starts in the mind. ”The body and the mind cause a substrata of disease and happiness (i.e. positive health). Balanced utilization (time, mental faculties, and object of sense organs) is the cause of happiness.” 17
We can look at a study on the traits of twins to understand a few things about epigenetics in relation to Ayurveda. This study revealed that identical twins – with the exact same DNA – will not only have different physical traits as they age, but they will also carry different emotional temperaments and be prone to different disease states throughout their lives. A very famous epigenetic study on genetic twins found that 35% of twin pairs had significant differences in DNA methylation and histone modification profiles. 18 DNA methylation patterns can be affected by genetic variation, environmental changes, heritable and non-heritable changes in other epigenetic processes. Over the course of their lives, their bodies have played out differing roles which have created different expressions and manifestation of certain traits among them. This indicates that even if you have identical DNA the choices you make in the world can affect how your body responds to the stimuli. We are responsible for our choices. Our choices affect our outcomes. There is far more to health than just our genes. So how do we know how to adjust for this to live a life free of disease? Ayurveda has some very intuitive answers.
In Sanskrit Dina means “daily” and Charya means “following or moving”. Ayurveda recommends that in order to be in an optimal state of health we should tune our bodies into the cycle of nature which in turn regulates the various other rhythms of our body. As modern society has taken hold of our lifestyle, our ability to live within the rhythms of nature has become increasingly difficult. We have artificial light everywhere we look. We have manmade sounds that keep our body stimulated far beyond the evening when our body naturally wants to find a quieter space for itself. We have technology that keeps us attached to screen for many hours of our waking day. There are so many factors in our world today that keep us from truly being in touch with nature and our natural rhythms. The longer we deny ourselves the opportunity to live by the rhythms of the natural world, the deeper we leave a state of balance and fall into a place of ill health.
Ayurveda suggests that we live by the light of the sun. It is best to wake up in the dawn hours. Depending on our doshic tendencies we should wake anywhere from 3 to 6 am. It is best to take this time to eliminate and cleanse the body, perform self care including abhyanga, do physical exercise to further cleanse the body, take time for proper meditation and take nourishment of proper foods. All of these tasks shall keep a body free of disease. 19 In the evening, there should be a lighter meal taken at least two hours prior to sleep to let all food empty from the stomach for proper digestions to occur. The time after dinner should be of relaxing nature and bedtime should not be later than 10pm. If these natural rhythms are allowed to fall by the wayside, change in our body chemistry can be seen. Take, for example, a study done on shift workers and their circadian rhythm disruption and its link with breast cancer. This study pointed out that as our circadian rhythms get more and more out of kilter with nature, there is an increasing likelihood that certain genes will have the ability to mutate into cancer causing cells. 20 So even if a person is getting enough sleep if they are not sleeping at the proper times their body will react in a way that manifests disease. This study reflects Ayurveda’s message about living within the cycles of nature. It is not natural to sleep during the sun. Our bodies are proving this by manifesting irregular cellular functioning which leads to damaging outcomes.
Three Causes of Disease
Ayurveda believes that the three cause of disease have a direct correlation with our influence from our personal choices and our environment. These three causes – Prajnaparadha, Asatmendriyartha Samyoga, and Parinama are three factors that, when not taken into consideration, will be the cause for dis-ease in life. According to Ayurveda treatment of the disease does not treat the symptoms but brings the person back to their true nature. The body will then be able to rid itself of the disease. The Caraka Samhita states, “So the unwholesome conjunction of the sense organs with their objects, intellectual blasphemy (prajnaparadha) and transformation (parinama) – these are the threefold cause of diseases. Proper utilization of the objects, action and time is beneficial to the maintenance of normal health.” 21
Prajnaparadha is translated to mean – “intellectual blasphemy.” In short, we know that when we truly listen to our inner self, we can make decisions that reflect a state of balance. When our ego gets in the way we can potentially make choices that go against the health of our entire being. When we ignore our inner voice we are knowingly making choices that lead us astray. It could be a choice that we may think has minor consequences such as feeling heavy and lethargic after too large of a meal. This feeling may not last long but if we choose this route over and over again it will lead to long term consequences. The challenge of prajnaparadha is the gradual erosion of willpower and self esteem. The choices we make every day that lead us away from a state of good health will give us the idea that we somehow lack the control over bigger choices in our life. If we “give in” too often to our ego’s desire we then develop a path that makes it harder and harder to choose the more beneficial long term outcome. In ancient times this act is referenced in both present choices and choices from our past lives. “Hence, all seen (known and understood) causes are those of the present life, the opposite (unseen causes) and those of Davia providential divine origin; those causes which are trivial (mild, insignificant, weak) in nature but cause dreadful disease are a mixture of both (activities of the present life and past lives). 22 The recognition of choosing our action in response to our well being will lead us to a place of Sattva. When we succumb to the desire of our ego state, we are acting in a position of Rajas.
This idea of prajanparadha (intellectual blasphemy) can be seen through the lens of epigenetics. If our choices of the present moment are carried with us as we age it’s fair to say that, epigenetically speaking, we are also passing down those choices to our offspring. Here are two studies that show how small insignificant choices can have dreadful long term results, not only for us but our offspring as well.
The first study, and probably one of the most significant studies on epigenetics, relates the choices of the mother agouti mouse directly to the health of her offspring. This study used mice that carried the particular agouti gene scientists could track to see if they could change the genetic legacy of the offspring. When agouti mice breed the offspring are identical to the parents. These yellow fat mice look different than other mice because they carry this agouti gene that makes the rodent’s appetite enormous and renders them prone to cancer and diabetes. The experiment was simple – they changed the mother’s diet. In one generation – the mother’s offspring were small, slender, brown, normal looking mice. All they did was change the mom’s diet. The diet was rich in methyl donors which are found in many healthy foods including onions, garlic and beets. These “good” methyl clusters attached to the agouti gene essentially turning it off so that the developing embryos did not have an open methyl to activate the agouti gene. These offspring did not display susceptibility to cancer and diabetes and lived to a very old age. The DNA of the offspring was not altered and the effects of the agouti gene had virtually been eradicated. 23 This study is remarkable in many ways. Not only does it show that epigenetically we have a great deal of influence over our lives and the lives of our offspring, it also shows that our small, somewhat insignificant everyday choices (i.e. what we eat) have an enormous impact on our well being and the health of our progeny. These choices are all about prajnaparadha. The majority of humans today have at least some idea of good food choices. We are educated at a young age about long term health and the effects of poor food choices. We then must cope with our own intellectual blasphemy when we are faced everyday with choices which will affect us as well as our children.
The next topic leans toward prajnaparadha of the mind. Our choices are not just having an effect on the physical body. Epigenetic studies have correlated their findings to that of the brain – primarily in relation to stress. Many studies have shown that stress in early life experiences can alter the neuroendocrine system. These alterations can impact the response to stress a person carries throughout life. Studies in both rats and people have shown that early life stressors to infants will cause DNA methylation thereby affecting oxytocin receptor expression as well as anxiety responsivity. “The fetal and early postnatal periods are times of dynamic physiologic change and developing organs and tissues are extraordinarily vulnerable to environmental influences. During sensitive periods of development adverse events such as stress or maltreatment can more readily trigger epigenetic alterations which can adversely affect physiological function and behavior through adulthood.” 24 Cognitive and physiological response to stressors are highly influenced by genetics, early-life environment and trauma. “Responses to stress are ultimately based on the predispositions of the organism. The magnitude, duration and pathological consequences of physiological ‘stress responses’ differ markedly between individuals, based on stress history, genetic background, and early-life programming. Thus, resilience and susceptibility to stress are dictated by a variety of factors that ultimately determine whether neuroplastic adaptations can effectively promote coping or lead to loss of appropriate stress control and perhaps pathology.” 25 The vast evidence shows that epigenetic modifications within relevant brain regions will influence behavior, physiological outcomes and disease risk.
The human race is fragile. We are not only susceptible to environmental factors on a physical level, we are susceptible on a mental/emotional level as well. As these studies point out, our choices not only have great impact on us but on those around us. We have such huge influence over our offspring. Prajnaparadha comes down to promoting the human race. Evolution of our ability to advance into beings of a higher kind then must start at the basic level of taking a more mindful approach to our lives, not only for ourselves but for generations to come.
Astmaya means “improper”, indriya means “sense organs”, artha is “the objects of the senses” and samyoga means “to combine” or “to link”. Asatmendriyartha Samyoga means improper use of the senses. Our five senses carry a delicate balance between delight and damage. Whether it be through sight, sound, touch, taste or smell, our senses give us extraordinary pleasure. As humans we naturally feel that if something is pleasurable that more of the same stimulation will be even more pleasurable. That is ever so far from the truth. When we repeatedly hyperstimulate our senses we can damage our senses. This can lead to confusion and blocked flow of consciousness. Damage to our senses can then destroy consciousness. Our job is to stay mindful of the balance and respond to the needs of our bodies appropriately.
Ayurveda uses five sense therapies in order to bring the body back to its natural state of balance. Taste therapy comes in through what we ingest into our bodies. Food, herbs and liquids all have a very direct effect on our health. Ayurveda categorizes food into six tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. These tastes have a unique physiological response for every individual. Good food choices differ greatly from person to person in terms of what would be considered constitutionally appropriate. Visual impressions have a profound effect on the body. Violent movies create stress in the body and beautiful sunsets release a surge of peaceful neurochemicals in the body. Everything we take in visually will stay with us. Different colors have varying energetics and Ayurveda uses these to subtly adjust the balance in the body. Color therapy is used to heal that which the eyes bring in. Ayurveda also uses touch therapies to promote balance in the body. Abhyanga is one of the most popular Ayurvedic therapies that is used daily to promote health. It improves immune function, nerve stabilization, improves circulation and promotes restful sleep. Every sound has a physiological effect. Ayurveda incorporates the use of mantra to achieve healthy balance via our sense for hearing. Our sense of smell is the most primitive of our senses and connects us with our emotions, instincts and memories. Ayurveda incorporates aromatherapy to alleviate imbalance in the mind and body through our sense of smell. With every breath we are exchanging our personal energy with that energy from the universe.
Epigeneticists are researching the misuse of the senses on a molecular level. They are finding that epigenetic factors are proving to be instrumental in the spread of common diseases. It has been stated many times throughout the medical world that 95% of disease are not inherited. This means the lifestyle choices people make everyday have a direct impact on the susceptibility to disease. For example, one study shows that mice that are predisposed genetically to cardiac and diabetic disorders can give off normal offspring when they are fed the proper diet. In short, epigenetic factors, proper use of the senses, can supersede genetic factors. 26 This is extraordinary. This proves that the Vedas were right. Asatmendriyartha Samyoga is essential to health and longevity. According S.L. Martin, ”genes regulate 25% of longevity, whereas 75% is determined by lifestyle factors such as sleep habits, alcohol beverage consumption, stress levels, exercise, and diet. Furthermore, studies have indicated that vegetarian dietary patterns of the Seventh Day Adventists play a role in extending the life-span of humans, as well as lowering the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and has been determined to exert beneficial effects on aging.” 27 As humans have evolved, lifespan has been increasing with the eradication of certain disease, with advancement in sanitary conditions as well as acute trauma medicine. Many epigenetic studies have also focused on whether becoming a centenarian is strictly nature or nurture. The increased human lifespan of centenarian individuals compared to people with average lifespan is directly related to vastly different diets. The average centenarian diet focuses on plant proteins, whole grains, monounsaturated fats and very little red meat, simple sugars and refined grains. 28
In the Astanga Hrdayam, it talks directly about the use of the senses in relation to disease. “He, who indulges daily in healthy food and activities, who discriminates (the good and bad of everything and then act wisely), who is not attached (too much), to the objects of the senses, who develops the habit of charity, of considering all as equal (regarding kindness), of truthfulness, of pardoning and keeping company of good persons only, becomes free from all diseases.”29 This quote sums up the idea of Asatmendriyartha Samyoga. All good things in moderation and giving of oneself for the benefit of the greater good seems to be an everlasting truth to the endurance of humanity.
Parinama in Sanskrit means “evolution over time”. This third cause of disease is a fatal one. By the end of a long life everyone will see the affects of parinama but the key to health is learning to flow within the natural rhythms of life. The Caraka Samhita said that a person’s inability to cope with the changing cycles of life will lead to various stages of disease. 30 Diseases tend to come on with change – whether it’s the change in the season and immunity is down or whether there is increased sexual desire from the changes in a woman’s moon cycle – these are both examples of the natural ebb and flow of the body.
According to The Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine, there are two types of time – one being linear and the other being biological. 31 Linear time is static. Biological time can be manipulated based on the movement of our bodies and our minds. The famous author Eckhart Tolle explained time like this, “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time: and not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections, not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.” Being in the present moment is the key to spiritual awakening. When our bodies are in constant motion and our mind is in constant thought, time will speed along until disease sets in. When we consciously slow down our motion (Vata) we can begin to understand the concept of parinama. In Ayurveda Vata is motion. If we exacerbate our motion both on a physical as well as a mental level and never calm the body or the mind down, we will literally wear it out at a much faster pace. Over 80 diseases are a manifestation of the Vata dosha. 32
In the book Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is an eightfold path to quiet the mind. This path is the key to enlightenment. Part of this path is learning to quiet the vrittis of the mind. This requires the focused attention called Dharana. It is the first aspect of meditation. It is the ability to pick a point of focus for the mind and refer to it as the mind begins to wander during meditation. Dharana is “concentration of the mind” in Sanskrit. Once we learn to focus the mind we can then train the mind to sustain focus and concentration for longer periods of time. Dhyana is the actual practice of mediation. It is the sustained focus of one’s mind in order to fully be present with the object of focus. 33 These two concepts – Dharana and Dhyana – are essential to parinama and slowing down biological time. If we can consistently practice concentrating our minds we can hinder the encumbrances of aging. Sri Desikachar, one of the most influential yogis of the modern age, talked about the relation to time like this, “the mind is capable of 2 states based on 2 different tendencies. These are distraction and attention. However at any one moment only one state prevails and this state influences the individual’s behavior attitudes and expression.”
Epigenetic research is studying the effect of parinama through the study of applied consciousness. In a study of expert meditators, there was a reduced expression of histone deacetylase genes, alteration in global modification of histones and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes in meditators compared with a control group. 34 This basically states that the meditator group showed significant reduction in inflammation – which is a precursor to a host of diseases including Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer and obesity. The membrane of every cell plays a vital role in determining the input from the cell itself. There are two types of proteins in cell membranes – sensor proteins and effector proteins. Sensor proteins respond to a variety of extracellular signals that may be biochemical, vibratory or electromagnetic. Hence, the response of the body may be based on non-physical inputs such as movement (i.e. yoga asana) and thought (i.e. meditation). 35
The total number of altered methylation sites, where the sensor proteins latch onto, increase as we age. Methylation changes can then lead to altered gene expression which contributes to the delayed onset of age related diseases 36 As more of the population is living longer, there has been an increase in age related diseases. Environmental variables in the epigenetic processes that involve alterations of gene expression without a change in DNA sequence can determine different aspects of aging, as well as pathogenesis of age-related diseases. Epigenetics plays a role in the aging processes and healthy life extension.
Another study on epigenetics and meditation showed that two psychological states in contrast to each other – threat cognition and mindfulness – had an effect on cellular aging. Threats in terms of ruminative thoughts can lead to prolong states of reactivity whereas mindfulness reduced the ruminative thoughts and reduced stress arousal. 37 These studies show the effect of applied consciousness going far beyond that of a person’s current state. Meditation has long term benefits for the body, mind and spirit. As we learn to quiet our minds our body follows suit. This is a place where our body can rejuvenate and heal itself. As a result of epigenetic investigations, we now understand how negative, fearful thoughts can cause DNA strands to constrict and become entangled. Conversely, we’ve learned that positive, appreciative, and loving thoughts can result in lengthened and relaxed DNA strands. 38
The time for the body to relax is essential for repair so the body will continue to last well into the Vata time of life. As we flow into the Vata time of life, our body naturally begins to break down. If one is conscious of this we can work to alleviate the dosha with diet and lifestyle practices thereby promoting a greater likelihood of good health as we age. Parinama can then help us mindfully flow into the golden years of our lives.
In this paper we have seen many similarities between Ayurveda and Epigenetics. We gave a basic overview of epigenetics and the three main types of epigenetic modifications. We then discussed how Ayurveda relates to the concept of epigenetics in five distinct ways. The first way relates the Ayurvedic concept of Prakruti vs. Vikruiti with that of genetics vs epigenetics. We saw striking similarities between the two concepts. Next we discussed the role of nature and lifestyle routines in relation to epigenetic research. We found that not only what you eat but everything we take in through the five senses affects our health and our susceptibility to disease. We then talked more in detail about the three main causes of disease according to Ayurveda. We correlated how Prajnaparadha directly impacts our health and longevity. We saw that Asatmendriyartha Samyoga was essential for health and well being and finally we showed that Parinama has a direct impact on our ability to age gracefully. Both Epigenetics and Ayurveda have shown that a person’s experience at the physical, mental and cellular level can directly affect the quality of that person’s life experience. We can also see that those experiences are easily transferred down from generation to generation.
The purpose of Ayurveda is health, happiness, and liberation on the journey to enlightenment. Ayurveda simply offers direction in terms of nutrition, physical activity, and rest. Ego, ignorance, greed, and attachment cause great angst because the idea of possession creates stress. The awareness of being is the reality in which truth is embodied and silence is enjoyed. The wrong perception is the Maya, or illusion, that often perceives stress. This directs the individual away from the truth. A proper perception transcends all, while a faulty one generates suffering and illness.
Epigenetics has been around 20 years. Ayurveda has been around 5000 years. Both have come to very similar conclusions. Epigenetic research confirms traditional ancient knowledge that diet, lifestyle and mindfulness can all be used to fight disease and promote health. We are here on this planet to optimize the expression of our genes in a way that supports evolution and growth both individually and collectively. “Expression” is the operative word in epigenetic possibility. Genes will take multiple generations before any minor mutations can take place but the expression of our genes can change almost daily. Our health is a vast spectrum of possibility. Our choices affect our outcomes. We are what we eat. We are not a product of circumstance by which we sit around and watch while our health and happiness deteriorate as we age. We are truly masters of our own demise. The great English poet William Henley summed things up quiet perfectly in his final stanza from his famous poem Invictus;
- It matters not how strait the gate,
- How charged with punishments the scroll,
- I am the master of my fate:
- I am the captain of my soul.
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5. Michael Skinner, “Epigenetic Ancestral DDT exposure promotes epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity,” BCM Medicine 2013. 11:228.
6. Ibid 5.
7. Ibid 4.
8. Ibid 4.
9. Dr. Marc Haplern, Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine (Tenth Edition September 2012), 202.
10. R.K. Sharma and Bhagwan Dash, Caraka Samhita (Chaukamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, India, 1992), 41.
11. Subhadip Banerjee, Parikshit Debnath, and Pratip Kumar Debnath, “Ayurnutrigenomics: Ayurveda-inspired Personalized Nutrition from Inception to Evidence” Journal of Traditional Complementary Medicine 2015 Oct; 5(4): 228-233. PMCID: PMC4624353
12. Yogita Ghodke, Kalpana Joshi, and Bhushan Patwardhan, “Traditional Medicine to Modern Pharmacogenomics: Ayurveda Prakriti Type and CYP2C19 Gene Polymorphism Associated with the Metabolic Variability,” Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine 2011;249528 PMCID: PMC3135904
13. Ibid 11
14. Ibid 9
15. Prof K. R Srikanthu Murthy, Astanga Hrdayam: (Government College of Indian Medicine, Bangalore, India), 12.
16. Bijoya Chatterjee and Jigisha Pancholi, “Prakriti-based medicine: A step towards personalized medicine”, Ayu. 2011 Apr-Jun; 32 (2): 141-146. PMCID: PMC3296331
17. Ibid 9, 40
18. Jordana T. Bell and Tim D. Spector, “A twin approach to unraveling epigenetics”, Trends Genetics. 2011 Mar; 27 (3): 116-125. PMCID: PMC3063335
19. Ibid 14, Sutra 2: 1-18
20. Hoffman AE, Yi CH, Zheng T, Stevens RG, Leaderer D, Zhang Y, Holford TR, Hansen J, Paulson J, Zhu Y., “CLOCK in breast tumorigenesis: genetic, epigenetic and transcriptional profiling analyses”, Cancer Research 2010 Feb 15:70 (4): 1459-68 PMCID:PMC3188957
21. Ibid 9, 43
22. Prof. K.R. Srikantha Murthy, Astanga Samgraha: (Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi), 396.
23. Dana C Dolinoy, “The agouti mouse model: an epigenetic biosensor for nutritional and environmental alterations on the fetal epigenome.” Nutritional Review 2008 Aug; 66 (Suppl1): S7-11. PMCID:PMC2822875
24. Herbert L. Mathews and Linda Witek Janusek, “Epigenetics and Psychoneuroimmunology: Mechanisms and Models” Brain Behavior Immun. 2011 Jan; 25(1): 25–39. PMCID:PMC2991515
25. Jason J. Radley, Mohamed Kabbaj, Lauren Jacobson, Willem Heydendael, Rachel Yehuda, and James P. Herman, “Stress risk factors and stress related pathology: neuroplasticity, epigenetics and endophenotypes”, Stress 2011 Sep; 14(5): 481-497. PMCID:PMC3641164
26. Thaiyar M Srinivasan, “Genetic, epigenetics and pregenetics”, International Journal of Yoga. 2011 Jul-Dec; 4(2): 47-48. PMCID:PMC3193653.
27. S.L. Martin, T.M. Hardy, and T.O. Tollefsbol, “Medicinal Chemistry of the Epigenetic Diet and Caloric Restriction”, Current Med Chemistry 2013; 20(32): 4050-4059. PMCID:PMC3873820.
28. Ibid 26
29. Ibid 14
30. Ibid 9, 226
31. Ibid 8
32. Ibid 21, 373
33. Sri Swami Satchitananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, Virginia), 1999.
34. Perla Kaliman, María Jesús Álvarez-López, Marta Cosín-Tomás, Melissa A. Rosenkranz, Antoine Lutz, Richard J. Davidson, “Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Feb; 40: 96–107. PMCID: PMC4039194.
35. Ibid 25
36. Elissa Epel, Jennifer Daubenmier, Judith Tedlie Moskowitz, Susan Folkman and Elizabeth Blackburn, “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009 Aug; Vol 1172: 34-53. PMCID: PMC3057175
37. Danny Ben-Avraham, Radhika H Muzumdar, and Gil Atzmon, “Epigenetic genome wide association methylation in aging and longevity”, Epigenomics. 2012 Oct; 4(5): 503-509. PMCID: PMC4123813.
38. Jim Walden, Ed.D., R.Hy., “Epigenetics: Using Applied Consciousness to Achieve Wellness and Well-being.” http://www.ozarkresearch.org/Site/epigenetics.html