Epigenetics, an emerging science
We are all born with the genes we inherit from our parents. But how our body expresses the genes we already have isn’t fixed: it can change based on the activities we pursue, the foods we eat, even our emotional state! We are learning more and more about this from the emerging science of epigenetics.
We are even learning that, in some respects, what we are depends on what our grandparents ate or did. And just as the food our grandparents ate can affect us, so will the food we eat affect our grandchildren. This is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (TEI).
A December 2013 study conducted at the Emory School of Medicine illustrates how TEI works: mice were trained to avoid the scent of cherry blossoms (the smell was linked with an electric shock). The mice’s offspring and “grandchildren”—with no prior exposure to the scent of cherry blossoms and no training from their parents to avoid it—exhibited a similar aversion to the smell. This and similar experiments mean that our anxiety, fears, and phobias may be shared with at least two generations.
A 2010 study showed that overfed male mouse pups that developed metabolic syndrome passed elements of the disease on to their offspring—even if the offspring weren’t overfed.
Some of the studies showing how the behavior of one generation clearly affects the next generation’s DNA chemistry are in human populations. For example, a mother’s diet during pregnancy can increase her child’s risk of obesity. Findings from a Swedish study spanning three generations suggested that diet can cause epigenetic changes affecting several generations’ risk of heart disease or diabetes.
New research released last week reveals an epigenetic link to Alzheimer’s. This heartbreaking disease may not simply be a factor of age or genetics—it may also be caused both by family history and by your own lifestyle.
Alarmingly, some scientists are beginning to believe that TEI may be responsible for rising rates of anxiety, obesity, diabetes, and other epidemics. For example, a University of Texas experiment hinted that increases in the rates of autism and bipolar disorder could be a result of epigenetic damage stemming from previous generations’ exposure to new chemicals and fertilizers—and that these detrimental effects may be passed on “without any further exposure.”
The message here should not be that our past has locked us into a tragic future. It should instead be to look more closely at the mistakes we are making right now and what they might mean for ourselves and future generations. For example, please see our related article on GMO and epigenetics. With respect to autism, we also need much more research on the overloaded infant vaccine schedule and use of toxic vaccine preservatives and adjuvants, research which governments working closely with vaccine manufacturers are blocking.
In thinking about changes we need to make right now, we should keep one thing in mind: negative epigenetic changes appear to be reversible.
Animal research by Duke University found that B12, folic acid, choline, and betaine supplementation during pregnancy lowered their offspring’s susceptibility to obesity, diabetes, and cancer (are you listening, Dr. Offit?).
Despite media noise to the contrary, epigenetics research suggests that maintaining sufficient nutrient levels will significantly affect your current and future health, including the likelihood that you’ll develop cancer as you age. For example, healthy levels of selenium and vitamin D can reduce the accumulation of epigenetic changes that can drive cancer. One study showed that patients with higher levels of vitamin D and selenium experience fewer epigenetic changes associated with cancer.
Our fitness and emotional well-being can also affect how our genes are expressed.
A Harvard School of Public Health study showed that a sedentary lifestyle can amplify the effects of genetic tendencies towards obesity, while a brisk one-hour daily walk reduced genetic influence towards obesity by half.
In addition to its many other health benefits, meditation can epigenetically influence thousands of genes. In fact, one study found that 2,209 genes were significantly different between long-term practitioners and healthy individuals who didn’t meditate. Meditation can suppress genes responsible for inflammation, and therefore help you physically recover more quickly from stressful situations.
The deeper we delve into the newly hatched field of epigenetics, the more reasons we find to approach health naturally—through lifestyle changes, a wholesome diet free of GMOs and pesticides, the appropriate use of dietary supplements, and the avoidance of chemicals and contaminants. It also means it’s more important than ever before to protect consumer access to the integrative practitioners who can help us lead healthier lives.
Help your genes “express themselves” in a healthful way. Future generations will thank you!