What's your hump?

What’s your hump?

by | Aug 16, 2018 | Physical Wellbeing

Have you ever heard “It’s genetic” or “It runs in the family” when discussing a physical, mental or personality characteristic that you have (or one that might be coming your way)?

You know the sort of thing…

“Everyone gets bad knees in this family”…
“That bunion is just the same as your great uncle Charlie’s”…
Or “There’s no escaping the Shuttleworth hump”.

That last one is mine – not exactly as it was put to me, but definitely the firmly held belief that a ‘Dowager’s Hump’ was an inherited characteristic passed through the female line. My mother has one, her mother had one, her mother before her had one and so on…

(NB: Dowager’s hump: dowager is a widow who holds title or property from her deceased husband. The hump is a hunchback or kyphosis or abnormally curved spine. This condition is often common in elderly women, but I have no idea why there is a particular association with being a Dowager!)

So by implication, it was being suggested that my fate was to develop this same ‘hump’ as generations of women before me… because it’s genetic.

That’s our theme for this article – can we challenge the notion of genetic fate, take self-responsibility and achieve a different outcome for our wellbeing?

Audrey and I were educated on a solid diet of nature v nurture arguments. Debate still rages about how much of a person’s personality and intelligence is influenced by their genetics and how much by their environment.

Now there’s a new field in science that is blowing previous theories out of the water.


Introducing epigenetics

Although first used in 1942, the name epigenetics crept out of the science lab into popular press in recent years as a new and exciting area of scientific and medical research.

With apologies to all epigeneticists, a simplified definition is that epigenetics is the study of the biological mechanisms that switch our genes on and off.

Key facts about epigenetics:

  • Differing circumstances in our lives can cause genes to be either expressed or silenced i.e. they can be ‘turned off’ and become dormant or be ‘turned on’ and become active.
  • There are a wide range of circumstances at play – what we eat, where we live, who we interact with, when we sleep, how we exercise, how we age – these can all influence chemical changes that in turn impact the gene activity.
  • Some disease states have been linked to genes being activated, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
  • It may be that it’s the epigenetics that makes us unique rather than the underlying sequence of DNA as previously thought – the different combination of genes that are turned on or off making us who we are.
  • The epigenetic changes in our lifetimes may be passed on to our children. Parents can have a huge epigenetic influence on the development of an embryo even before conception e.g. a father’s diet can influence a child’s future mental health; a mother’s diet impacts the uterine environment in which an embryo develops and may impact future susceptibility to obesity… for the child. This new field, nutriepigenomics, is exploring how food and epigenetics work together to influence health and wellbeing.
  • And, the big one – epigenetics is reversible. This is where the science is only just starting. If the scientists can map the cause and effect of every one of our 20,000+ genes being turned on or off, and the combinations of these, then we have the potential to work on the good changes and eliminate the bad.

Wow! This stuff makes me want to re-train.



This is not a new notion for us or anyone embedded in the world of wellbeing. You can’t expect your organisation, your boss, your family or anyone else to create your wellbeing – you have to be in the driving seat.

And, my feeling is that these discoveries in epigenetics are opening up all sorts of new possibilities in terms of challenging what we might previously have felt were pre-determined, genetic factors dictating how our lives are going to turn out.

We can make decisions and choices that have the potential (no certainties) to turn off gene expression for particular ailments and diseases – physical and mental.

What about my hump?

Taking my self-responsibility firmly in my own hands, two years ago I took myself off to the GP to ask the question about the heritability of the hump and how to combat this. She sent me to an Exercise Physiologist who promptly told me that a) I was already showing signs of this development in my spine and b) it’s heavily influenced by poor posture.

A series of exercises were offered to strengthen my postural muscles. I did them, then I didn’t. I did them, then I didn’t. I did them, then I didn’t. Like many things in wellbeing – I yo-yoed a bit.

But despite this, the good news is that I have now achieved a correction in my posture bringing me back into the ‘normal range’ (a measurement of the angle of rotation of my top rib). I’ve effectively reversed the decline and maybe I can keep this going for a couple of decades.

Even if I don’t do this consistently – I know it’s in my power to do so and I know what to do (and I can’t blame my ‘dodgy’ genetics anymore!).

The only part of this hump story that probably has some (epi)genetic influence is osteoporosis – this contributes to spinal curvature as well as generally weakening our bones, and women are particularly susceptible to this in older age (after the protective effect of our reproductive hormones has worn off).

However, my reading on this indicates a complex picture – one that leaves a lot of room for epigenetic influence on the gene expression for the condition. In other words, we can take a lot of positive steps towards minimising our chances of developing osteoporosis (or the severity of this) and maybe we can reverse existing deterioration by following these recommendations:

  • Consume loads of calcium – 1300mg per day for women over 50 (equivalent to 3-4 serves of dairy)
  • Adequate Vitamin D
  • Regular exercise, including weight bearing, resistance training and aerobic fitness & avoid high impact exercise
  • Stop smoking
  • Minimise caffeine


What’s your hump?

My final thought for this week is to encourage you to think about your own ‘hump’.

Not necessarily bad posture, but the thing you’ve accepted as your genetic inheritance – an ‘immutable’ physical or mental characteristic or condition you already have or are hunkering down to deal with it when it comes.

Time to re-assess?

I can thoroughly recommend the first website in the references below as a source of robust science on the topic of epigenetics if you are drawn to learning more.

Good luck!



Stewart, TL., Ralston SH., (2000) Role of genetic factors in the pathogenesis of osteoporosis
J Endocrinol. 2000 Aug;166(2):235-45.

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