Approximately five years ago I began digging into the research relating to biohacking. This term (and the community that identifies with it) has ballooned during that time.
Now, as the field of epigenetics begins to take on a huge significance, in terms of understanding of health, these hacks are golden gifts when used correctly. They can greatly help reduce the risk of dementia, chronic diseases and some cancers – diseases that start invisibly during working life.
Health and fitness fads have been shown to be unsustainable, for most people, because they require effort. As humans, we seek the route with the least effort and/or the least cost. This is driven by our underlying, evolutionary biology that is much stronger than our conscious selves. So, these routines eventually fizzle out and the benefits are lost as epigenetic effects take over again.
In this article we’ll look at understanding epigentics, habit hacks to mitigate epigenetic effects and how this can impact on workplace wellness.
What does ‘epigenetics’ mean?
We’re familiar with the term genetics these days. Many of us will have done DNA tests to find out interesting facts about our heritage we can humour people with at the pub. Those genetic tests can also be used to predict the likelihood of us developing certain diseases. Our genes are inherited. We receive them from our parents.
Epigenetics, on the other hand, relates to how those genes are expressed in every cell, every minute, of every day, of our lives. It turns out that our environment, and our behaviour, significantly influences this gene expression process and the biological systems that drive it.
This means that the only true route to lifelong wellness is conquering your daily habits, and forming some relatively simple routines that can easily be maintained without much effort, forever.
Our modern lifestyle is triggering continuous underlying damage throughout adulthood. This is because our ancient biology doesn’t understand it and we’ve formed the wrong habits. Some of these habits are so small you wouldn’t even begin to think they are damaging.
We can measure this damage fairly easily using epigenetics tests, via a saliva or blood (finger prick) sample. It’s now possible to assess the damage to calculate how fast we are biologically ageing. This also enables us to predict how long we will be healthy.
We actually have several ages:
- Our chronological age (your birthday)
- Our biological age (there are actually several of these because our organs have clocks that age at different rates)
- Our subjective age (how old you feel)
What habit hacks can mitigate these epigenetic effects?
The good news is research shows that what goes forward can also go backwards. In other words, as well as speeding up our biological ageing rate, we can also slow it down. We can even reverse it in some cases. Just through embedding some simple habit hacks.
Here are a few examples of how to do it:
Weight gain and gut diversity
We’re eating the wrong food, at the wrong times, in the wrong amounts. Simply adjusting your eating window can have a noticeable effect for many people. For example, delaying breakfast and having an earlier dinner shortens the eating window (e.g. 8-10 hour period) and can aid calorie intake and weight control. Gut diversity is also now known to be a key driver of cellular inflammation. Simply swapping your daily fizzy drink habit for a probiotic version (kombucha) can naturally boost the amount of good bacteria in your gut.
Did you know your sleep circuitry is governed by the timing of daylight exposure received by certain cells at the back of your eyes? Simply stepping outside as early as you can for a short while can help calibrate this ancient wiring. It recognises the blue light from the morning sun. Thereby, enabling it to release melatonin that evening to kickstart the sleep cycles (as long as you haven’t messed it up by exposing your eyes to artificial blue light from bright lights and screens before bed).
Our ancient fight/flight/freeze response is haywire right now. This ancient circuitry, originally designed for survival, is constantly being triggered by our behaviour and environment. This produces a cascading stress chemical release, which when secreted into our circulation chronically can kill cells. Did you know that extending your exhales (breathing out for longer than breathing in) can help shut off that ancient system. Music can also do it very quickly because the ears lead to the brain. Calming sounds and calm breath gives the brain the information it needs to know we’re safe.
One of the most staggering admissions of the past few years is that we don’t need to do all that leaping around in the gym. Simply standing up more often throughout the day and going for a simple walk outside is enough to optimise the multiple biological systems that require movement to work optimally (from sleep to poo). As a sport and exercise scientist I found this fact very hard to accept, but it’s true. This is why since Covid I’ve been encouraging clients to cancel their gym membership and spend their money on fixing their habits. I cancelled mine in January 2020 and my health scores soared. I gained far more value from instead spending that money on a gut test, biological age test, a smart pillow and mattress, and some basic habit coaching. Fitness based health clubs will need to dramatically revolutionise what they offer members from this point on. We know the old recommendations have been superseded by simple epigenetics-based habit hacking.
How does this impact workplace wellness?
A worrying trend I’m seeing at the moment is employers moving towards app-based wellness services. I totally understand why they’re doing it. It ticks the box. It provides data – which these days we seemingly cannot breathe without.
Think about it, though.
We know the things that are prime disease drivers (S.O.S.) – smoking, obesity, and SMARTPHONES.
We already spend far too much time on devices and not enough time being exposed to human interaction, or digital rest. Sending your colleagues to a digital wellness service is not a ‘perk’. It’s exacerbating the problem.
I’m hopeful that over the coming years, as employers become deeply knowledgable about the role of epigenetics, approaches will modernize. After all, we know that our working life is without doubt one of the biggest drivers of our epigenetics. So, our employment can protect us.
The amazing Dr Julia Jones – aka Dr Rock – will be joining us at The Watercooler Event and presenting a dazzlingly dynamic free to attend “Hack your habits” workshop with TheMusicLicence on day 1, 25th April from 13.30 – 14.15 and on day 2, 26th April from 10.45 – 11.30.
Dr Rock and TheMusicLicence are available for a chat on Stand W300, where they invite you to come along and find out more about how you can improve your employee wellbeing and engagement.
Find out more and register to attend The Watercooler for free here.
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