Epigenetics sounds complicated, but it’s really nothing more than answering the question: Who are you? (Who who, who who?)
The question has been asked eternally by everyone from musicians to philosophers. Health-wise, biologists say we’re not who we thought we were. Up until a generation ago, we believed our health was more or less genetically inherited from our parents. But advances in molecular biology prove we actually have more control of our health than once thought, and that our environment has a greater impact on our well-being than the gene pool we were dealt. Epigenetics is a mechanism by which our environment communicates with our genes. Environmental and lifestyle factors can essentially regulate genes, which ultimately controls to what extent the genes are expressed.
Every day the evidence grows.
A new study from Upland University shows that tea consumption in women plays an important role in modulating disease-risk by suppressing tumor progression, decreasing inflammation, and influencing estrogen metabolism. A new University of Southampton study shows that modifications to DNA rather than the DNA itself can increase a child’s risk of obesity. A University of Copenhagen study reveals that even the onset of puberty is influenced by a myriad of environmental factors including juvenile obesity.
“The evidence is overwhelming that genes are a vulnerability factor rather than the cause of disease,” says Dr. Jennie Ann Freiman, a New York obstetrician-gynecologist. “Risk can be modified depending on choices we make.”
Some of those choices include the food we eat, exercise, and exposure to the chemicals in our environment, according to holistic practitioner Dave Brethauer.
“By making dietary changes, eating naturally raised meat, removing the chemicals from our environment, and reducing the stress in our lives, we change not only our health but also we improve our DNA,” says Brethauer.
The End Of The Genetics Era
In his book How To Live 150 Years In Health, Dr. Dimitris Tsoukalas, leading expert in the application of metabolomic medicine in chronic and autoimmune diseases, writes about “The End Of The Genetics Era.”
According to Tsoukalas:
Our genes are not static as once thought; they are dynamic units that regulate their expression depending on the surrounding conditions and environment (epigenetics). The human body is able to change its programming and optimally adapt to its environment.
All this means, says Tsoukalas, is that our current and future health is not solely defined by DNA anymore.
As way of example, Tsoukalas points to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2009 entitled “A Healthy Lifestyle is the Best Revenge.” Some 23,000 people were followed for eight years. The purpose of the study was assessing the extent to which three chronic diseases, which are the leading cause of mortality (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes), could be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle that included:
- Avoiding obesity
- Practicing exercise more than 3.5 hours per week
- Following a healthy diet
“The results were amazing,” says Tsoukalas. “Those meeting all health requirements had a lower overall risk of chronic disease by 78 percent.”
“We now understand that genetics only plays a very small role in most diseases,” says Dr. Ajay Goel, director of Epigenetics and Cancer Prevention at Baylor University Medical Center.
Other than a very small proportion of hereditary diseases where we inherit compromised or mutated DNA or genes from our parents, we are recognizing that the majority of diseases occur due to dietary and environmental factors controlled by epigenetics.
Goel believes more than 90 percent of diseases are actually not genetic-based.
A Deeper Look Into Epigenetics
British developmental biologist Conrad Waddington is considered by some to be the father of the epigenetic movement. In 1956 he published a paper in the journal Evolution demonstrating that genetic change is random and that the effects of environment stimulus played an important role in genetic transformations. He knew from his developmental studies that embryo fruit flies could be persuaded to show different thorax and wing structures simply by changing the environmental temperature or by a chemical stimulus. Epigenetics means “above genetics” and it was originally conceived by Waddington himself to describe the existence of mechanisms of inheritance in addition to (over and above) standard genetics.
Before Waddington, it was generally believed that we were born with a concrete and unchanging DNA blueprint.
“Every human body starts from twenty-one thousand genes for which you can have up to 10 million variations and infinite combinations between 10 million results,” says Tsoukalas. “A single gene can produce up to 31,000 variations of the same information contained therein by varying epigenetic factors.”
This is why two brown-eyed parents can have a child with green eyes.
Microbiology professor Holly Ahern says there are two ways the expression of genes can be influenced by environmental factors.
Methylation is an epigenetic mechanism that occurs by the addition of a methyl (CH3) group to DNA, thereby often modifying the function of the genes. What you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, even aging – all of these can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. Additionally, in certain diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal/healthy state.
According to Ahern, the second way genes can be influenced by environmental factors is through DNA packing, which simply means that the more tightly DNA is wound up, the genes on those tightly packed regions are not expressed.
Pimas And The Blame Game
More than one-third of adults in the U.S. suffer from obesity, reports the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. People with weight issues commonly blame their condition on a slow metabolism or that being overweight runs in their family. But one only needs to examine the plight of the Arizona Pima Indians to get a clearer understanding of how epigenetics plays into weight gain.
Just south of Phoenix, the Pimas living on the Gila River Reservation have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the U.S. It’s not unusual to see 300 pound teenagers waddling down the back roads. But these people were lean until around 1890 when their water supply was overtaken by American settlers upstream. Unable to grow their traditional foods, the U.S. government began subsidizing the tribe’s food, much of which contained white flour and sugar. The acquired taste for sugar carried over into modern times. A plethora of convenience markets located on or near the reservation became popular stops for sodas, chips, alcohol, and processed foods.
But not all the Pimas stayed in Arizona with the advent of the water issues. One group splintered from the others and relocated in a rural area of Mexico, absent of modern conveniences. These Pimas walk great distances for their water, and they also continued eating their traditional low fat diet of tepary beans and dried cholla buds.
Mexico’s Pimas are still thin.
“People in the same family may have the same diseases for similar ages and conditions,” says Tsoukalas. “Of course, there is a common predisposing factor, given that one starts from a similar genetic code. However, the most important factor is that people of the same family tend to have similar habits.”
Epigenetics: Even Emotions Regulate Genetic Expression
“You actually have a tremendous amount of control over how your genetic traits are expressed,” says Dr. Joseph Mercola, osteopathic physician and alternative medicine proponent.
This includes how you think, according to Mercola who defers to cellular biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, one of the leading authorities on how emotions can regulate genetic expression, explained in Lipton’s The Biology of Belief, and Spontaneous Evolution.
“According to Dr. Lipton, the true secret to life does not lie within your DNA, but rather within the mechanisms of your cell membrane,” says Mercola.
The idea is that each cell membrane has receptors that pick up various environmental signals, and this mechanism controls the “reading” of the genes inside your cells. Your cells can choose to read or not read the genetic blueprint depending on the signals being received from the environment. So having a “cancer program” in your DNA does not automatically mean you’re destined to get cancer. Far from it. This genetic information does not ever have to be expressed.
“What this all means,” says Mercola, “is that you are not controlled by your genetic makeup. Instead, your genetic readout (which genes are turned ‘on’ and which are turned ‘off’) is primarily determined by your thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions.”
This mind to body connection is not unheard of. One study shows that the vagus nerve, which is responsible for everything from keeping our heart rate constant and food digestion to breathing and sweating, can be stimulated by simply thinking positive thoughts about others.
3 Most Important Epigenetic Influences
While environmental factors that impact our genetic expression are many, three in particular stand out for their all-encompassing influence on our general health:
1. Diet – “Diets are something that we can control and they directly relate to disease burden,” says Goel.
The World Health Organization would agree. A report based on input from leading dietary experts states:
Heart disease and stroke is reduced by eating less saturated (unless it’s from healthy sources) and trans fats, and sufficient amounts of (n-3 and n-6) polyunsaturated fats, fruits and vegetables, and less salt. Reduction of commercially produced processed salt intake helps reduce blood pressure, a major cause of cardiovascular diseases. (Not to be confused with sea salt, which has health benefits).
Dietary factors contribute significantly to some types of cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight will reduce the risk for cancers of the esophagus, colorectum, breast, endometrium, and kidney. Limiting alcohol intake will reduce risk for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and breast. Ensuring an adequate intake of fruit and vegetables should further reduce risk for oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, and colorectal cancer.
2. Exercise – Regular exercise can reduce the risk and symptoms of more than 20 physical and mental health conditions, and can also slow down how quickly your body ages, according to Mercola.
A review of research, which summarized the findings of 40 studies, found that exercise affects conditions including cancer, heart disease, dementia, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, obesity, and high blood pressure.
“Of all the lifestyle factors that can silence or promote gene expression, physical activity is the most potent,” says Freiman. “The good news is that it doesn’t have to be extreme exercise, just a moderate level of aerobic activity does the epigenetic trick.”
3. Microbiota – According to Ahern, “A person’s individual microbiota have a huge influence on human health and disease because they influence how and when genes in various cells and tissues are expressed.”
Microbiota are the microorganisms that form microbiomes, communities of microorganisms that inhabit your skin, mouth, gut, and other parts of your body. Like fingerprints, no two microbiomes are the same. Gut microbiota are particularly important because the trillions of microbes in the intestinal tract profoundly impact human biology — digesting food, regulating the immune system, and even transmitting signals to the brain (gut/brain connection) that alter mood and behavior and possibly even contribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD) when out of balance.
Ahern believes that the science of epigenetics is so new and revolutionary that modern sciences are still “trying to figure out what to do about it.”
“It is a scientific revolution of enormous importance, and its effects will be felt for years to come.”
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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