Is Osteoporosis Genetic?
“Osteoporosis runs in my family,” is an explanation I often hear when people come to me with concerns about weak bones and fracture risk. But though it’s true that there is often a genetic component to osteoporosis, there’s a widespread misunderstanding when it comes to genes.
I can’t say it strongly enough: Your biology is not your destiny, and having a gene that increases your chance of developing osteoporosis isn’t something you “just have to accept.” As recent research shows, genes can be changed by how you live your life, and especially, how you deal with stress.
How the mind flips the genetic switch
A growing number of studies have shown that your mind is one key to taming your DNA. These studies examined the physical indicators of stress in small groups of participants practicing the particular stress-reduction methodology that study was interested in —psychotherapy, deep breathing, or meditation in some cases, Asian practices like qi gong or acupuncture in others. They compared markers of inflammation and gene expression in the participants to similar healthy controls who did not practice these techniques.
The general findings of these studies show that when a person practices stress-reduction techniques, a number of physical changes take place — some at the gene level. Participants in one study with different levels of experience and training in stress-reduction techniques showed changes in the expression of genes that affect the response to oxidative stress and cellular metabolism (Dusek et al. 2008). These effects seemed to be cumulative — that is, people who were new to their practice had a response, but those who had experience or who did their practice more often had a greater response. Another study (Kaliman et al., 2014) found decreased expression of proinflammatory genes and increased expression of genes associated with cortisol recovery in subjects who meditated.
The genetic destiny of your bones
Chronic inflammation can take a heavy toll on bone, so anything we can do to keep inflammation in check is a bone health bonus. In one small study, qi gong practitioners had enhanced immune function and cellular metabolism, especially in terms of reducing inflammation quickly (Li et al, 2005).
In a second study, older adults practicing a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program had reduced expression of the inflammatory NF-κB-related gene expression and C-reactive protein (Creswell et al, 2012). I’ve talked about how reducing C-reactive protein protects your bones (and your heart), and this study shows great promise for how to do just that. In a third, psychotherapy was found to reduce cortisol and other stress hormones and improve immune function (Feinstein & Church).
Now, it’s true that all of these studies are small — but their findings are remarkably consistent in showing that reducing stress helps to alter how genes regulating inflammation and other key metabolic processes that affect bone can absolutely be changed.
Do whatever works best
These studies show that it doesn’t matter what you do to reduce stress. If you like meditating, do it. If psychotherapy helps, do that — but if you prefer qi gong, that works too! All that really matters is that you actively seek to restore peace and balance to your emotional and mental life.
Creswell JD, Irwin MR, Burklund LJ, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun 2012;26(7):1095-1101.
Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, et al. Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response. PLoS One 2008;3(7): e2576. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002576.
Feinstein D, Church D. Modulating gene expression through psychotherapy: The contribution of noninvasive somatic interventions. Rev General Psychol 2010;14(4):283-295.
Kaliman P, Álvarez-López MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, et al. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2014;40:96–107.
Li QZ, Li P, Garcia GE, et al. Genomic profiling of neutrophil transcripts in Asian qigong practitioners: A pilot study in gene regulation by mind-body interaction. J Altern Complementary Med 2005;11(1). DOI: 10.1089/acm.2005.11.29.
I’m Dr. Susan Brown. I am a nutritionist, medical anthropologist, writer, and speaker. Get my free weekly newsletter here.