Epigenetics does not mean that thinking makes it so

You know, I really, really hate the way quacks abuse molecular biology. I know, I know. I’ve said it before, but certain quacks have a way of willfully misunderstanding the latest advances in genomics, molecular biology, and biology in general. Of course, this isn’t limited to just medicine, unfortunately. After all, we have Deepak Chopra and his quantum woo, which abuses physics and quantum theory in the name of “proving” mind-body dualism, a bastardized version of “intelligent design” creationism that is based on Eastern mysticism rather than Christianity, and, of course, a “conscious universe.”

If there’s one thing that the quack world is all about, it’s control. It’s not just control, though, in the sense of taking control of your health in a rational way. Rather, all too often it’s a fantasy world, an infantile wish-fulfillment, in which wishing, if we are to believe some quacks, literally makes it so. What is The Secret, after all, but the very embodiment of this concept, in which, if you think the right thoughts and want something bad enough, somehow the universe will magically grant you what you want? This mindset is embodied in the teachings of various quacks who either imply or state outright that if you just eat the right foods and take the right supplements you will be not just healthy but virtually impervious to disease. This is not a straw man argument. How many times have I shown examples of, for example, antivaccinationists like Bill Maher claiming that disease is not due so much to microbes but to the “terrain” of the body. The not-so-subtle implication is that the reason one gets sick is because of one’s habits. Of course, there are a lot of lifestyle diseases, but the implications goes beyond the sensible, science-based observation that obesity and lack of exercise increase the risk of certain diseases, into the realm of stating that if you just eat the right foods and do the right exercises you’ll never get sick.

Utter nonsense, of course.

There’s also a dark side to this sort of thinking, and that’s the flip side of the argument. If you can nearly completely control the state of your health by what you eat and do, the not-so-subtle implication is that if you get sick it must be your fault. After all, if we have complete control over our health through our lifestyle, then it follows that if you’re sick, you must be doing something wrong.

The latest way that quacks are trying to push the idea that you have near total control over your health is by abusing new findings in epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or phenotype that are not caused by changes in the underlying gene sequence. Mechanisms by which epigenetics can influence gene expression include chemically modifying DNA in a reversible fashion, such as through methylation, which usually silences gene expression. Modifications of histones, which are the proteins around which DNA is wrapped, can also alter gene expression. It’s a fascinating area of research, because it suggests that gene expression can be altered longer than transiently by environmental influences. Of course, given that organisms and biology are affected by environmental influences, this is almost a trivial observation; the power of epigenetics is that it can explain how such changes in gene expression can come about.

You can probably see why quacks have seized on epigenetics so eagerly. If there’s one thing quacks hate, it’s genetics. The reason, of course, is that they view genes simplistically in a deterministic fashion, constructing an elaborate straw man of modern genetics in which genes are destiny. Epigenetics frees them from that, because they can now use it as a near-magical talisman to invoke as an alleged mechanism by which one’s activities can permanently alter one’s gene expression. I just saw a doozy of an example yesterday on–where else?–Joe Mercola’s website. It’s an article entitled Falling for This Myth Could Give You Cancer. In a sidebar, Mercola gleefully exclaims:

Science has shattered the Central Dogma of molecular biology, proving that determinism–the belief that your genes control your health–is false. You actually have a tremendous amount of control over how your genetic traits are expressed, by changing your thoughts and altering your diet and your environment.

Uh, no. The Central Dogma hasn’t been “shattered.” It’s simply been modified and clarified, just as Newtonian physics was expanded by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, such that, at speeds much less than the speed of light, relativistic calculations and Newtonian calculations produces answers that are so close as to be indistinguishable. In any case, the Central Dogma, as you might recall, is the concept that DNA encodes RNA, which encodes proteins, which then lead to biological activity and control of phenotype. In essence, it’s about the flow of information from DNA to RNA to protein, with part of the dogma being that information does not flow backwards in that progression. Not surprisingly, I’ve never liked that name (“Central Dogma”), as I don’t like the idea of calling anything in science a “dogma,” but that’s the name it got, and somehow it stuck. Never mind that there have been multiple modifications over the years. for instance, it turns out that it is possible to go back to DNA from RNA and that RNA can make copies of itself.

Then there came epigenetics. Of course, to hear quacks like Mercola talk, you’d think that DNA no longer encodes RNA, which no longer encodes protein. That’s nonsense, of course. that part of the central dogma never changed. Be that as it may, much of the abuse of epigenetics is very much Secret-like wish fulfillment. For example, take a look at this excerpt from Mercola’s article:

The ramification of buying into the central dogma is that it leads to belief in absolute determinism, which leaves you utterly powerless to do anything about the health of your body; it’s all driven by your genetic code, which you were born with.

However, scientists have completely shattered this dogma and proven it false. You actually have a tremendous amount of control over how your genetic traits are expressed–from how you think to what you eat and the environment you live in.

You may recall the Human Genome Project, which was launched in 1990 and completed in 2003. The mission was to map out all human genes and their interactions, which would than serve as the basis for curing virtually any disease. Alas, not only did they realize the human body consists of far fewer genes than previously believed, they also discovered that these genes do not operate as previously predicted.

Yes, this is pure Secret-like wish fulfillment. Mercola totally buys into the idea that emotions can change epigenetics to the point where your emotional makeup can alter your gene expression. In a way, this is a rather trivial observation. Of course, if you’ll probably change gene expression in parts of your brain because becoming angry or upset for example, raises blood pressure and produces a host of other physiological effects. Where Mercola and his fellow woo-meisters go off the rails on this crazy train is when they imply that you can control epigenetic processes with your thoughts and emotions. This is where Mercola’s attacking the Central Dogma as a “myth” that can “give you cancer.”

He begins by first completely misunderstanding the difference between quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics. A passage like this could have been penned by the master of quantum woo himself, Deepak Chopra:

Science has indeed taken us far beyond Newtonian physics, which says you live in a mechanical universe. According to this belief, your body is just a biological machine, so by modifying the parts of the machine, you can modify your health. Also, as a biological machine, your body is thought to respond to physical “things” like the active chemicals in drugs, and by adjusting the drugs that modify your machinery, doctors can modify and control health. However, with the advent of quantum physics, scientists have realized the flaws in Newtonian physics, as quantum physics shows us that the invisible, immaterial realm is actually far more important than the material realm. In fact, your thoughts may shape your environment far more than physical matter!

Uh, no. Not quite. No, not by a long shot. I’d like to see Mercola shape his environment with his thoughts. Of course, he could be talking about the trivial idea that how your thoughts are you and how you act, which of course will affect your environment. But the quantum woo that Mercola is talking about goes far beyond that:

The major problem with believing the myth that your genes control your life is that you become a victim of your heredity. Since you can’t change your genes, it essentially means that your life is predetermined, and therefore you have very little control over your health. With any luck, modern medicine will find the gene responsible and be able to alter it, or devise some other form of drug to modify your body’s chemistry, but aside from that, you’re out of luck… The new science, however, reveals that your perceptions control your biology, and this places you in the driver’s seat, because if you can change your perceptions, you can shape and direct your own genetic readout.

If this isn’t magical thinking, I don’t know what is. First of all, it’s a straw man to claim that genes are destiny. Genes affect probabilities, but it’s been known for many decades that other factors are important. Ever hear of the word “penetrance”? It’s a very old word in genetics. It’s simply a measure of what proportion of a population carrying a given allele of a gene will show the phenotype (trait) associated with that allele. It’s been known for a very long time that not all genes have 100% penetrance. In fact, most don’t. Epigenetics is nothing more than a new mechanism that can modulate a gene’s penetrance.

In any case, Mercola seems to think that we can somehow magically change our DNA through epigenetic mechanisms just by thinking about it:

So the good news is that you are in control of your genes … You can alter them on a regular basis, depending on the foods you eat, the air you breathe, and the thoughts you think. It’s your environment and lifestyle that dictates your tendency to express disease, and this new realization is set to make major waves in the future of disease prevention — including one day educating people on how to fight disease at the epigenetic level. When a disease occurs, the solution, according to epigenetic therapy, is simply to “remind” your affected cells (change its environmental instructions) of its healthy function, so they can go back to being normal cells instead of diseased cells.

And:

You can also turn your genes off and on with your emotions too. Many, if not most people carry emotional scars; traumas that can adversely affect health. Using techniques like energy psychology, you can go in and correct the trauma and help regulate your genetic expression. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), but there are many others. Choose whichever one appeals to you, and if you don’t sense any benefits, try another, until you find what works best for you.

Please, remember that ‘You CAN Take Control of Your Health.’

Of course you can take control of your health, but you don’t need to believe in The Secret (which, let’s face it, is all that this sort of stuff is) to do so. You also have to realize that there are limits. If you have, for instance, familial hypercholesterolemia, you are still highly likely to develop heart disease at a young age no matter what you do, but you can make it as late as possible by living a healthy lifestyle, eating a healthy diet, and exercising. If you’re a woman who carries a cancer-predisposing BRCA1 mutation, you’re still going to have an incredibly high chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer no matter what you do. In that case, taking control of your health would likely involve a combination prophylactic surgery to remove your breasts and ovaries, taking an antiestrogen drug like Tamoxifen to decrease your risk of breast cancer, or following a very close screening program so that you can intervene as soon as there is an abnormality worrisome for cancer. You cannot magically exercise, eat, or think your way out of the risk, no matter how hard you wish for it.

Mercola’s article is yet another supreme confirmation that magical thinking is at the heart of so much alternative medicine. No one argues that it’s not a good thing to improve one’s diet, to exercise, to avoid harmful substances. That’s a no-brainer, and science can give us the parameters for what is harmful and what is not. Even if it is true that emotions change gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms, it does not follow from that that we can actually control our gene expression in a way meaningful enough to make a difference in health. As someone once said about Deepak Chopra when he made similar claims, I’d like to see Mercola or Lipton alter their gene methylation just by thinking about it.