unbroken, resilience

What do genes have to do with resilience?

I’ll be completely honest with you.

Resilience is hard work.

It is. It just is. But because resilience is the product of hard work, all of it, every change and challenge we ever face. How does the song go? Oh yah, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. So true.

I’m not trying to be Debbie-downer here. I’m also not going to lie by saying look on the bright side (Yah, I hate that too!).

Resilience doesn’t come by positive-ing our way through life. It comes by living fully and authentically through life. Period.

So, what do our genes have to do with it?

Genes are at the hub of how life’s challenges, all our life experiences—every single one, no matter how difficult or freaking stressful—can shift us straight into robustness, sturdiness … resilience.

We talked about the roadmap for resilience last time, our terrain for healing that is so big we call it our TotalGloriousOneness (TGO): body, mind, thoughts, stories, emotions, gut feelings, spirit, soul, energy, and all our interconnectedness within ourselves and with others, our communities, our environments, our planet, and our Universe.

What do all these experiences do?

They talk to our genes. They literally shift how our genes express themselves to become … us.

What does “shifting” mean?

That’s right, we have a say in how it all unfolds. We can purposefully, strategically shift our genes.

Then what happens?

This terrain that makes us us, our TGO, can catapult us straight into our most robust, most sturdy, most resilient and sparkly wholeness.

So, let’s explore these tiny internal transformative geniuses that makes us so powerful: our genes.

From Unbroken: Reclaim Your Wholeness.

Gene expression.

Oh my gosh, how science-y do we need to get about genes and gene expression to heal ourselves?

Truthfully? Not very. We can leave most of that information for the science geeks. But we do need to understand a few basic concepts to take more meaningful control over how we make our genes work for us. We need to understand that our genes do work for us. We’re not sitting ducks to “bad genes” after all.

First, we must unlearn a big idea that arose over half a century ago when genes were first discovered, the gene hypothesis. Despite being a hypothesis, which is supposed to grow rather than get stuck, it rapidly became a narrative so powerful it still has a stranglehold on how we think about ourselves, even though it’s been thoroughly upended by current science. It’s such a sticky and powerful narrative, it continues to be a cornerstone of mainstream biomedicine and how it is practiced. Remember when we talked about the medical-industrial-insurance complex? That’s why. The gene hypothesis is highly profitable.

Genes are strands of structures called chromosomes, comprised of proteins and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). They serve as codes—sets of instructions—that our cells use to manufacture the proteins involved in all aspects of our bodies’ structure and function. We have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, each intertwined with one another to form a double helix. Most of our genes are found in the nuclei of our cells, though some DNA is found within mitochondria, the energy-producing parts of our cells.

With the discovery of chromosomes in the mid-twentieth century, the gene hypothesis was born. It said we are our genes. The narrative rapidly took western biomedicine and our culture by storm: our book of life—all structure and function and risk for disease—was thought to be predetermined and fixed at birth, contained within these genes. Therefore, since we inherit our genes from both our parents, what happened to them, or to their parents, or to our siblings, according to the gene hypothesis, sets the probability of what will happen to us. The only thing to do, then, is to sit back and wait for our book of life, our genetic destiny, to come true, and when things go wrong, ask the “experts” to fix us.

Then came the genome project, launched in 1990, with the goal to map all the genes of the human genome. It was widely believed that this information would establish the ultimate cure for all diseases, thought to be immutable manifestations of the genetic familial legacy contained within our genes.

The genome project turned out to be a colossal disappointment for the scientific community. What they found were over twenty-two thousand protein-coding sequences in humans, the same as all other mammals and ninety-three percent the same as all living organisms on the planet, including the tiniest invertebrate microorganisms! More importantly, ninety-nine percent of the DNA discovered were sequences that did not code for proteins as scientists believed they would. They initially referred to this as “junk” DNA, implying that it had no value or purpose because they didn’t fit what scientists were expecting.

Since these discoveries, however, more curious scientists have established that non-protein coding DNA functions as DNA expression regulatory elements for DNA expression, switching genes on and off to either activate or repress the process by which genetic information from genes is turned into proteins. And what are these regulatory molecules? Every aspect of our lives. Because everything we experience—what we eat, how we sleep, all our feelings, everything—talks to our genes. Our terrain.

These findings helped upend the gene hypothesis and gave rise to the new science of epigenetics. Epigenetics tells us that our genetic expression is not fixed, it’s fluid. Our genes shift their expression in response to everything that happens to us. The physical structure of our DNA stays the same, but the regulatory elements within the genome are continuously monitoring our terrain, our internal and external environments, all our experiences, and shifting genetic expression responsively.

So, what does this mean for us and our healing potential?

We continuously adapt to our environments and life experiences through modifications in our genetic expression. This leads to constant shifts in our structure, function, us. So, instead of genes determining the potential of who we are and who we can be, we are created by our environments and life experiences. Our genes don’t cause most disease, dysfunction, and suffering, our environments and life experiences do. Our genes may contribute risk or predisposition or a certain measure of probability that we will develop certain health outcomes. But our environments and life experiences shift that inherent risk, predisposition, and probability.

The strength of determining your outcomes varies among genes. Based on your parents’ genetics, we can predict things like hair and eye color. There are also a handful of diseases that are strongly predicted by genetics, such as chromosomal abnormalities (Down’s syndrome, for example) and single gene disorders (cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are examples). But the vast majority of gene-related problems are the result of interaction between genes and the environment.

We may not have control over the chromosomes we inherit from our parents, but we have total control over most environmental influences and life experiences that modify gene expression and, thus, open the possibilities for potential we may not have known we had.

Here’s our challenge, though. The gene hypothesis is stuck in our heads, isn’t it?

I’m just like my mother. My mom and grandma both had hysterectomies, I will too. My dad had diabetes, guess I will too. Depression runs in my family. I am my disease. I am my diabetes, autoimmune disorder, hypertension, and chronic pain. This is who I am.

I know this so well—it lingers in my head too. Both my father and grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. They both died from its terrible effects. My dad developed an aggressive form of Lewy body dementia as part of his disease and died within a few years of the diagnosis. His final days were mostly alone in a care center during the lock-down phase of COVID-19 in 2020. It was a tragedy. I catch myself worrying about my own future and considering carefully what to do to avoid what appears to be a powerful family legacy. Fortunately, I know about epigenetics and neuroplasticity and core Functional Medicine systems biology. I know I can shift my genes and my biology into a more favorable equilibrium than my dad and grandpa, what this book is all about.

Sound familiar? We always assume we’re a set up for what happened to previous generations of our families. Or, that whatever disease we’ve been diagnosed with is “who we are” and was always meant to be. That we have no recourse.

Now, it could go down that way, right? As we’re learning, it depends on what we do with our environments and life experiences—with our personal terrain.

That’s the point of this section of this book.

We are largely in control of our destinies and we’re exploring the terrain that will show you how.

So, forget about genes right now. Your book of life is in your own hands. It’s all in the terrain.



p.s. Here are other excerpts from Unbroken:

How to embody your TotalGloriousOneness (AKA your gateway to resilience).

Stay relentlessly curious.

Practice and commit.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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