Change Your Lifestyle, Change Your Genes

Shelby Gonzalez

Mind-body medicine pioneer, Dean Ornish, MD, explains surprising new research

Based on the March 26 CHE Partnership Call
Years ago, Dean Ornish, MD, brought a well-respected yoga teacher to speak at a medical school. The teacher made a remark along the lines of, “When you do yoga, even your genes can begin to change.”

Dr. Ornish winced internally, thinking, “I’m going to be the laughingstock of the medical school, because everybody knows you can’t change your genes.”

“Genetic nihilism”

While that was the prevailing thought at the time, current research shows that changing your lifestyle – which could include taking up yoga – may be able to reverse heart disease, stall the progression of early-stage prostate cancer, stimulate the growth of new brain neurons, and, yes, even change the way your genes behave.

Far from being a laughingstock, Dr. Ornish is now a renowned figure in the field of integrative medicine. He is the founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of six bestselling books, including The Spectrum (Ballantine, 2007).

He gave the keynote speech at the landmark Institute of Medicine Summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public, which took place in February 2009.

You can view the video recording of the summit at

On March 26, he spoke on a teleconference presented by the nonprofit Collaborative on Health and the Environment. This article is based upon that teleconference.

Often, Dr. Ornish said, people attribute their health problems to “bad genes,” or figure that since they are genetically predisposed to, say, heart disease, they will get it no matter what they do, so they might as well continue leading unhealthy lifestyles.

“That’s what I call ‘genetic nihilism.’”

That mindset reflects a rigid and increasingly outmoded model of how genes and lifestyle determine health.

“Your brain can get measurably bigger”

As recently as ten years ago, he explained, “it was thought that you were born with a certain number of brain neurons. If you went out and had a binge, you lost a few thousand of those or more, and that was it. You wouldn’t get them back.”

These days, he continued, the new field of neuroplasticity is revealing that the brain is far less static than previously thought. Depression, for example, can shrink your brain, but treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy can return it to its previous size. And even if you’re not suffering from depression, getting more exercise can stimulate the growth of new brain neurons.

“Your brain can get measurably bigger,” Dr. Ornish said. “What I’m impressed by is how dynamic our bodies are. How quickly you can better – and how quickly you can get worse – in a number of different domains.”

More examples of the body’s responsiveness to lifestyle change come from research related to telomerase, which he defined as “an enzyme that repairs and lengthens damaged telomeres, which are the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live.”

In 2004, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn FRS, Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, Fellow of the Royal Society, and the codiscoverer of telomerase, coauthored what Dr. Ornish described as a “pioneering study” that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which examined mothers of chronically ill children, found that the women with the highest perceived levels of emotional stress had lower levels of telomerase and shorter telomeres than the women with the lowest perceived levels of stress.

In fact, on average, the most-stressed women had the telomerase levels and telomere lengths of someone ten years older.

“Over five hundred genes were changed”

Conversely, a study published in The Lancet Oncology in September 2008 found that, after following the lifestyle plan outlined in The Spectrum for three months, the telomerase activity levels of men with early-stage prostate cancer increased by 30%. Dr. Ornish and Dr. Blackburn were among the study authors.

A longer follow-up study will determine whether there were corresponding increases in telomere lengths.

“We also found that over five hundred genes were changed,” said Dr. Ornish, “turning on or ‘upregulating’ the disease-preventing genes and turning off or ‘downregulating’ the genes that promote prostate cancer and breast cancer (a specific class of Ras oncogenes) as well as the genes that control inflammation and oxidative stress.”

Those results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2008.

Inflammation and oxidative stress are considered important underlying mechanisms for diabetes, coronary heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, among other conditions.
Technically, he acknowledged, you can’t change the genes themselves.

“But you can change how they’re expressed, by modifying the proteins that turn on or turn off these genes. If you can turn off a gene that’s disease-promoting, then effectively you’ve changed your genes – at least functionally, if not structurally.”

“The world is catching up with us”

The healthcare system in the United States has been slow to embrace lifestyle-change approaches to managing serious illness. But that is changing. Medicare now covers the Dr. Ornish Program for Reducing Heart Disease – a comprehensive lifestyle-change program shown in clinical research to reverse even severe heart disease without drugs or surgery.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the world is catching up with us,” Dr. Ornish said. 

After giving the keynote speech at the Institute of Medicine summit, he testified before the Senate Health Reform committee about how preventative integrative-medicine practices, such as lifestyle change, could save the country billions of dollars in healthcare costs and help affordably extend healthcare coverage to more people.
Key among his recommendations were:

  • Change the reimbursement system to pay for integrative-medicine practices that have been proven safe and effective
  • Fund more scientific studies of integrative medicine
  • Incentivize wellness in healthcare plans and on corporate worksites
  • Serve healthy lunches in school cafeterias
  • Change subsidies in the Farm Bill to make it cheaper to eat healthy foods than junk foods

You can access his full testimony and other resources at
Through the efforts of Dr. Ornish and others, awareness of the medical efficacy of lifestyle change is spreading through the public consciousness.
“For me,” he said, “awareness is always the first step in healing. Just knowing these changes can make a difference so quickly can empower people and … motivate them to make these changes.”

A Report on the 2006 National CHE Conference

CHE Partner Bobbi Kimball, RN, MBA
Bolinas, California

A Quiet Environmental Revolution Begins in Bolinas 

The first time I visited Commonweal was in the mid 70s when a friend took me to see a demonstration organic garden and new pioneering work in biofeedback.  The second time I visited Commonweal was in the early-80’s to learn more about the Cancer Self Help Program and Michael Lerner’s seminal research on alternative therapies. Two years ago I joined Commonweal’s Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), a growing partnership of over 2300 individuals and organizations who share the common goal of improving human health by reducing exposure to toxicants in our bodies and the environment.

CHE’s purpose is to bring people together to further constructive debate and cooperative efforts, to foster productive action and to disseminate the best scientific information about these concerns.  That purpose was significantly advanced last Friday at CHE’s national conference in San Francisco.  The opening presentations by Phil Lee, MD, and Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, stretched the minds and hearts of around 200 participants from across the US and even the European Union.  They offered new ways to consider prevention, causation and ecological health as a complex system with significant impacts on health and disease. They spoke to the urgent need to bridge and integrate public health and the science of medicine. Presenting new data on biomonitoring, there was a realization that the environment is not just “out there” surrounding us, it is truly “within us” as living beings.  As a young girl, I grew up with my father’s passion for his career as an environmental scientist.  I was called to become a nurse, a healer.  At the conference, I sat with the realization that our separate journeys had converged in a most profound way.

The rest of the day was filled with 20 concise and fact-filled presentations from renowned scientists, physicians, policy makers and consumer advocates.  The relationship and measurable impact of toxins and chemicals present in our environment to the common diseases of asthma, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes were presented again and again. How much evidence do we need to take action? Efficiently and humorously moderated by Steve Heilig, the co-presentations pairing solid scientific data by lead researchers with the work of articulate and passionate consumer advocates on the topics of infertility, autism, Parkinson’s and air pollution’s effects on health were riveting.  When Michael Lerner closed the conference promptly at 6pm, the room was still full and the audience reluctant to leave.  

Rarely have I been to a conference that included such a broad cross section of scientists, health professionals, community organizations, health affected individuals and groups, government and public health representatives, funders and policy makers.  The knowledge that we are all working on these issues from different perspectives but in a collaborative fashion was powerful.  CHE has created a real working partnership that is producing amazing results.  The revolution to improve human health by reducing exposure to toxicants in our bodies and the environment has begun…and it started at Commonweal in Bolinas.

Join CHE at  It is free and your participation can be passive or as active as you desire.  You can easily stay informed online or choose to participate in monthly conference calls or join a working group.