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Epigenetics
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and Its Implications for Our Work With Clients

11/01/13
By Charlotte Uteg, LPC (processing), NCC
Children’s Home Association of Illinois, Peoria, IL

Your parents and grandparents suffer from chronic knee pain, obesity, and anxiety. So you and your children are doomed to be limping, chubby worrywarts. Right? 

Not so, according to exciting new evidence suggesting that we are not prisoners of our inherited genetic code. We have more power over our genetic destiny than previously thought.

The perception of the impervious nature of genetics has had a pervasive influence on our lives, affecting the theory of human development, personality structure, biology, and neuroscience. Recent research, however, has thrown a curveball at the nature-versus-nurture paradigm. Environmental exposures, interpersonal relationships, stress, and behaviors have all been shown capable of altering genetic processes. 

The study of epigenetics looks at the variation of gene expression and the ways these expressions are passed to offspring. Epigenetic research reveals that while DNA remains constant through the lifespan, behavioral and environmental factors can change whether certain genes are expressed or not expressed. These factors can turn on or turn off certain epigenetic markers capable of shifting patterns of gene expression, causing long-term consequences for cell development. The research suggests something once thought impossible: We may have the power to alter our genetic switches to prevent psychiatric disorders and diseases.

What Causes Genetic Markers to Be Turned On or Off?

Columbia University psychologist and associate professor Frances Champagne, PhD, includes nutritional intake, drug or toxin exposure, and social experiences such as trauma and stress as factors that possibly affect epigenetic modification. These variables, and many more—including level of physical activity—can silence oractivate certain gene sequences. For example, a poor diet and excessive stress may trigger abnormalities in gene expression, increasing the risk for diseases ranging from cancer and arthritis to bipolar disorder and depression.

These discoveries expand the dimensions of the wellness wheel. No longer should “bad genes” be considered a life sentence issued at birth. Choices and behaviors made today can steer our genetic destiny down a different path. It may even be possible not only to prolong or prevent disorders and diseases in our lives, but also to alter the genetic structure of our direct descendants. 

Although researchers remain skeptical, The Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah states that through epigenetic inheritance, some experiences of parents may be passed to future generations.

An Intriguing Application With Clients

A multitude of recent research demonstrates the impact that environmental exposures and interactions have on a variety of plant and animal species. Few studies thus far, however, have examined how the awareness of genetic empowerment influences lifestyle changes for humans, and even fewer have investigated how those changes impact offspring. 

But some researchers have predicted that it won’t be long before we will be able to identify and intervene in genetic abnormalities before they even develop. 

Might this ability lead to an entirely new component of counseling with our clients? Imagine a client in his or her early 20s whose health record reveals a near certain genetic predisposition for dementia. Not only would sessions include talk therapy, but perhaps brain-stimulation activities and coordination exercises. And how would clients respond if they knew they could help prevent an abnormal gene from being passed to their children?

Certainly there are a host of hurdles to clear before that becomes a reality, including affordability, access, and ethical considerations. However, we are on the road toward a unique version of personalized care, possibly genetically tailored. And although that type of information is not available today, we do have the ability to bring awareness of the power of epigenetics to our clients.

Since most clinical mental health counselors don’t have a strong background in molecular biology, genomics, or epidemiology, I recommend that those looking for accessible, jargon-free information on epigenetics consult The Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah website. It provides free, educational videos and interactive activities on epigenetics that are suitable for both mental health counselors and their clients.

A Study: How Does Knowing About Epigenetics Affect People’s Lives?

Epigenetics changes the modern view of human evolution. The nature-versus-nurture paradigm must now include decision-making skills and behavioral decisions. Instead of being spectators passively watching the progression of our species, we are powerful participants capable of influencing the direction of humanity. As clinical mental health counselors, we can be part of this historical change, transforming how people view aging and genetics.

Since last fall, I have been working with Bradley University professor Lori Russell–Chapin, PhD, LCPC, ACS, CCMHC, DCMHS, to conduct a research study on epigenetics in hopes of discovering what influence the knowledge of epigenetics would have on people’s lives.

Participants in the study included seven counseling students and three nursing students enrolled in the Counseling and the Dynamics of Aging course taught by Russell–Chapin during the January 2013 term. 

This year, the class had an added benefit. Seven members from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) also joined our class. OLLI is an organization for individuals in the retirement community offering a variety of programs including educational trips, lectures, and events. The unique assortment of students and OLLI members prompted fascinating discussions and brought to light an entirely different aspect of aging to the class. 

Russell–Chapin and I developed an anonymous pretest and post-test to accomplish two goals:

  • Measure generational differences in attitudes and beliefs on social and cultural issues, 
  • Determine if and how the knowledge of epigenetics generates change in beliefs and behaviors.


Questions focusing on cultural perceptions included a range of hot-button issues, such as human euthanasia and marijuana use. Epigenetic-related questions inquired about medical history, nutritional intake, and exercise habits.

The post-test also asked if the new epigenetic research findings presented during the course caused participants to begin or change any behaviors.

Data revealed strong opposing views between the age groups on some topics (e.g., body piercings and use of social media) and general agreement on others (e.g., smoking cigarettes). 

On the epigenetics-related questions, nearly 70 percent of respondents reported intentions to either begin new behaviors or change current behaviors based on what they learned about epigenetics during the course. These changes included plans to improve dietary habits, increase physical activity, and enhance practices for overall health and wellness. 

Though this study has a very small sample size, it indicates that the awareness of epigenetics has the potential to motivate individuals to change their behavior in an effort to improve their personal health and well-being. The new discoveries in this field are tremendously exciting, particularly the part it could play in the counseling profession. 

Clients feeling doomed by their physical and psychological lineage may experience a new sense of hope and optimism about their capability for change. And clients experiencing a loss of purpose or significance in life may be inspired to make changes in their own lives because of the possibility that these changes could benefit their descendants.

Charlotte Uteg is a nationally certified counselor and has applied for her professional counselor license in Illinois. She holds a master’s in clinical mental health counseling from Bradley University. Contact her at cuteg@mail.bradley.edu.

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