03/09/2014 09:57 BST | Updated 02/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Getting to the Root of Health and Disease

I made a mistake for most of my professional career, a mistake nearly all my physician colleagues make. For decades, I believed the best way to take care of my patients was to use the latest drugs and newest procedures. Instead of talking to my patients about food, toxin exposure, or activity level, I prescribed meds and moved on to the next person as quickly as I could.

I have seen the error of my ways. I have since learned about the power of epigenetics. Epigenetics looks at our how factors in our human habitat, or environment, affect our genes, turning them on and off. This interaction between our environment and our genes directly affects how our cells operate. Epigenetics examines the influence our environment has on which genes are active and which genes are silenced. It explains why a developing fetus might develop birth defects, malformations, or more subtle changes such as crooked teeth. It also explains why an adult, depending on diet quality and lifestyle choices, can have a much higher (or much lower, with the right health-promoting choices) risk for developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, early onset dementia, or cancer.

Our environment has a profound effect on how our cells conduct the chemistry of life and how we look and feel. It can change a healthy, disease-resistant body into an inflamed, sickly, disease-prone one. It can increase the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, autoimmune disorders, cancer, and other chronic ills.

So what do we mean when we talk about the "environment"? Exactly what factors speak to our genes, turning them on and off? It turns out that nearly every factor in our environment can influence our genes.

Diet is the most powerful epigenetic factor of all. The quality of our diet - how many vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and antioxidants we are feeding our cells - determines whether they are properly conducting the chemistry of life.

The second most powerful factor is exposure to toxic chemicals that disrupt hormone signals and biochemical processes in our cells. Because we rely so heavily on chemicals to improve the efficiency of industry and agriculture, we are exposed constantly to a great number of them. In multiple studies, over 200 chemicals have been found in the cord blood of new babies and the breast milk of new mothers. All of us have some amount of synthetic chemicals in our bodies, which creates epigenetic changes that affect gene activation and influence our risk of developing one or more chronic diseases.

Other environmental factors that speak to our genes include physical activity level, stress level, the health of social relationships, sleep quality, and the bacteria living in our bowels. In other words, the quality of our environment determines which genes are "on" and which are "off" and has the largest impact - at least 70 to 90% or more - on the risk of developing nearly every chronic disease affecting modern society.

Fixing our inflamed, sickly bodies means addressing our diet and lifestyle choices. Medication will not improve the health of someone who eats over 150 pounds of sugar each year, which was the average sugar consumption of an American in 2000. Nor will medication do anything about the years of smoking, inactivity, chronic stress, inadequate sleep, toxic relationships, or excessive lead, solvents, or pesticides stored in fat cells. All of those factors speak to our genes, changing our cell function and making our bodies disease-prone.

If physicians use only medication to treat disease without addressing the underlying factors that contribute to ill health, those diseases will continue and worsen. Every year, patients will grow sicker, need more medication, and accumulate more diagnoses.

Medications may control symptoms, but only diet and lifestyle changes can treat the cause of the disease. Every day, we choose what we put it in and on our bodies and how we move them, and these choices determine our health and well-being. Now that you know, what choices will you make? To teach you how to use diet and lifestyle changes to restore your health, reduce your pain, banish your brain fog, and eliminate your chronic fatigue, I have published a book to guide you, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine. To learn more about me and my work, visit