Genetics loads the gun, but environment and lifestyle fires the trigger.
Dr. Karen Wolfe is trained as a medical doctor in Australia and has dedicated the last twenty-five years to health promotion and wellness. Dr. Karen is skilled at delivering complex medical, biological and nutritional information in understandable ways.
Throughout this 3 part series, Dr Karen will be providing her expert advice on various topics to do with health and wellbeing as we age.
With a free downloadable eBook available with each episode!
Tune in to Episode 1 with Dr Karen Wolfe, as she discusses everything you need to know about longevity and vitality.
Could you tell us a bit more about your background and your perspective on longevity?
I was really passionate about the question what creates health. So I moved away from disease care to health care. From my 30+ years in the United States I have really worked in the creating health movement. So my perspective on longevity is around what supports longevity. And I am here to tell you it is all about lifestyle! I was very bold 10 years ago, I really wanted to get this message across about lifestyle. We hear it a little bit here and there, diet, exercise etc. But lifestyle is everything which we will talk a lot about here. So I wrote a book called ‘Is your lifestyle killing you?’. Because basically there is so much we can do with a healthy lifestyle, and when it comes to longevity it is not about anti-ageing, it is about living the best quality life, living as healthy as possible and creating optimal health for as long as we live. So that is my overall perspective and approach to longevity.
How important is diet and exercise as you age?
Well its huge! It is even hard to decide if one is better than the other. Let’s just talk about exercise, as I think it gets a bit of a bum wrap (I think that is an Australian term that I use). So let’s call it physical activity and let’s talk about the benefits of physical activity. Because I think to promote an active lifestyle it is about promoting the benefits of that, and I consider physical activity/exercise the best anti-depressants around and the best longevity pills. If there was a pill that had the power of exercise, it would be a best seller. Just think about it – it increases circulation, it improves mood, supports a healthy metabolism, burns calories, supports good blood sugar balance, helps us sleep better and eat better because our neurotransmitters are in balance. I could go on and on about the benefits of exercise and if we could put that in a pill it would be a best seller. Now that is not to say that diet is not important, because you can’t exercise out a bad diet. So I would say it is kind of like the scales of balance and is equally important to longevity. We will talk a lot more about diet, but I don’t want people to think about diet as dieting and restriction, a diet means a way of living. So I consider both of those equally important when we think about what is most important to longevity.
Do you have any advice for those who may be struggling to ‘stay active’?
Standing and moving every hour is so important, especially for people that are sedentary, moving the body and making it fun. The research shows that doing one hour of exercise and then sitting for the rest of the day, kind of negates the hour. So all through the day moving in some way, whether it is dancing, putting some music on and jumping around to that, or you have animals and you like to walk them, that is all part of being active. An active lifestyle means that we are moving, walking is great exercise. There is no perfect way, the perfect way is the way that works for you and your life. And remember to do it all through the day, not just in little chunks of the day. If you don’t like going to the gym – then don’t go to the gym, go do something that you love to do! Pickleball is really big out here, it probably is in Australia too and it’s becoming this big craze and you know the thing about pickleball is it’s fun, it’s social, you’ve got your friends and people set up pickleball courts in streets. So, that’s not my thing but it brings people great joy. I like doing boot camp, I like walking my dogs every day (if I don’t they’re going to tell me) so that’s all part of being active. Find something that works for you, don’t allow others to tell you what’s right or wrong for you, decide that according to your lifestyle what you love to do.
How much of your “longevity” is already determined by genetics?
The standard answer is about 20 to 30 percent related to genetics. But here is what I want your listeners to really understand, we are given a certain genetic or genome that doesn’t change with time but all that it tells us is a predisposition. It doesn’t mean that’s actually going to happen, so there’s this big field called epigenetics means around genetics it also means environmentally ways we can either switch genes on or switch genes off. I do a lot of teaching about epigenetics and helping people understand that even though you might have a certain genetic background or your genetics shows a certain makeup there’s things called snips which are different, slight variations in genetics. This doesn’t mean that’s going to happen if you have the right lifestyle which gets back to everything we’ve talked. For example if you’ve been given a not so great genetic code there are ways that you can keep certain genes silenced that you don’t want expressed. In future conversations when we talk about Alzheimer’s we’ll certainly talk about that particular gene that we’ve identified as potentially higher risk. But there are certain things we can do with lifestyle that can keep that quiet so people don’t realize that that genetics does not mean destiny, and one way it’s described is genetics loads the gun but environment and lifestyle fires the trigger. I don’t like the gun analogy but it just shows us the power we have with lifestyle to even change the way our genetics are expressed.
What role does genetics play in developing health conditions as we age?
I’m a health coach and I work in a field called nutrigenomics which is how nutrition and environment can change the expression of snips which are small little changes in genes. There are certain snips that have been really well studied that we work with for example the one I talked about with Alzheimer’s. It’s a snip a single nucleotide polymorphism that if you have a certain one what I would advise people is you do certain things like reduce saturated fats, exercise, keep your blood sugar stable. This potentially means that if you set up certain environmental lifestyle factors then it keeps that one silenced.
If you go to Drkarenwolfe.org and go to health and wellness genetic testing I have an explanation. There’s a test called DNA health that kind of explains some of the categories of nutrigenomics such as inflammation, detoxification, methylation and insulin sensitivity. There are certain snips certain small little changes in your genomic profile that makes you unique but that would lead to a certain lifestyle change that I would recommend for you. I would give you a DNA health test that is on my website, its global and it’s a little blood spot test that gets sent away, I get a report and then I go through the report with you. For example we were talking about Alzheimer’s, there will be a report to see if you have that so-called Alzheimer’s gene or not and if you do then I would recommend certain lifestyle factors that can support the suppression of that little snip. Or insulin sensitivity, so you might show that you have a higher predisposition to diabetes, which might make you more inclined to follow a low blood sugar lifestyle because you have this little genetic variation that makes you more susceptible to insulin resistance. It’s like a little window into what makes you unique and what lifestyle factors are most important for you. Because there’s so much we can do with lifestyle, but when we can really be specific based on your genetic risk, it makes it more effective.
How important is it to stay “mentally well” v. physically well? How does it all play a role in stress or anxiety?
It’s hard right because we talked about diet and exercise being like equally important, we didn’t talk about stress. So I’m here to tell you that stress can negate all of that because stress and the hormone called cortisol – that is the stress hormone the fight or flight response, is so damaging to the body in every way. When we talk about longevity, the stress hormone speeds up the aging process because it’s literally creating stress on the cells of our body, aging our body very quickly. But the good news is that stress has to do with the two things we talked earlier. Exercise is a stress reducer, eating a healthy plant-based whole food real food eating style versus processed food. The more processed food you have, the most stressed your body is going to be because that fake food creates inflammation in the body. So stress is handled by eating well, by moving and committing to an active lifestyle. I call it ‘CPR’ – Conscious, Powerful, Relaxation, spending some time in your day just switching everything off being quiet. For some people that’s prayer, reading inspirational literature that uplifts and motivates and inspires, for some it’s walking the dog and just being in nature. It doesn’t have to be this big stress bustling thing, it is calming down the parasympathetic nervous system which is the quieting nervous system and creating some balance between the stress response which is normal in our life. Finding balance in those two things as it works for you, and I guess asking yourself the question what brings me calm and peace, what helps me slow down and quiet down. For me, I can see a beautiful view outside of my office in nature and I just love being in nature, if I’m in a really spinning mode I can just go out and just be in that reverence of nature and the beauty of nature and sunshine and that can help me instantly.
Any advice for those who are looking to kickstart their wellness journey post-COVID?
Another huge stressor and it never let up right it was just constant and being in that fight or flight of what’s going to happen next. So often when I work with clients I have this ‘ABC’ – I like to keep it simple, our lives are complicated enough. So ‘A’ is accountability, sometimes it’s really hard for us to just motivate ourselves so if you have a friend that you can open up with and say hey I’m starting this wellness lifestyle whatever your goal is tell a friend, I call it an accountability partner and that person also is your support network because it’s often really hard especially when you’re a caregiver to do it yourself. The ‘B’ is baby steps, don’t be hard on yourself you might hear all these great ideas and it can be overwhelming so start small. The ‘C’ is connection, and of course with your accountability buddy you’ll get connection but be part of someone else’s life, ask for support, join a group, connection and community is really important. These are probably not what people would expect me to say when asking the question ‘how do you start a wellness lifestyle?’. Yes you can say, walk every day for 20 minutes or wear your apple watch, but they’re all one thing that it’s not sustainable unless you have accountability, you take baby steps and have connection and community. Those things are what’s going to keep it going for you, and I hope that just that little acronym will stick with you to remember how you keep this wellness lifestyle going.
Want to learn more about what Dr. Karen has to say?
For this topic I wrote an e-book that’s an electronic book so that you get it on your computer. It’s called ‘Top 12 Lifestyle Tips to Support a Healthy Immune System’. So when your immune system is healthy you are healthy and so that’s a free eBook that will kind of review a lot of what we’ve talked about today with diet, exercise, sleep, stress, the many lifestyle factors. That’s an eBook that you can kind of reflect on and maybe help you with those baby steps, pick one so if you’re not getting seven to eight hours sleep maybe that’s a goal. So that eBook might help you set your lifestyle baby’s steps. We also talked about nutrigenomics, something I’m very passionate about. You can certainly go to my website and look at the nutrigenomic testing there and learn a little bit more. You’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding this fabulous field of really making sure you know what your genetic predispositions are, potential health risks and being able to apply a lifestyle approach to that.