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Epigenetics: Rewriting Your Genetic Code
I’d like to impart to you my fascination with the world of epigenetics. After doing research for this blog I realized that it is too large a topic for one blog, and further that what I know only scratches the surface, but here goes: an introduction, of sorts, to epigenetics.
Before I try to explain what epigenetics is let me wet your appetite with why it is important. No longer is it believed that genetics alone determines health. We may have inherited a predisposition to a certain disease from our parents, but epigenetic research shows us the power we have to change that predisposition to one of health without changing our genetic code. This is epigenetics.
Epigenetics is "the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” (1)
Simply, epigenetics studies which genes are expressing themselves and which are not and what has instructed the gene to be turned on or off. We know that the genotype, the inherited genetic makeup of a cell, does not change except in cases of mutation. Yet the phenotype, the observable physical trait of an organism, can be different even with the same genes. (2) This is the explanation of why genetically identical twins are not necessarily physically identical in looks or health.
In a little more detail, epigenetics deals with several factors, but the most well understood is DNA methylation, the process by which methyl groups are connected to DNA to tell them what protein to produce. Think of it this way: the gene is the instruction manual and the methyl group interprets the instructions for us saying what kind of protein to make. The protein then changes the cell’s role which changes the genetic function of the cell. The DNA has not changed, just the function. Methylation can both promote a gene and silence a gene. (3 ) The body uses signals from the environment, food, toxins, stress, abundance or lack of specific nutrients, and vitamins to determine which genes to turn on and which to turn off.
Dr. Natasha McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome about healing the gut, is one of my heroes. She puts it this way, “Recent research has demonstrated that it is not genetics that predetermines the way we are, but the environment. The new science of epigenetics has shown that we are born with a huge choice of genes, most of which we never use. The genes are covered by special proteins which communicate with the environment to decide what genes to use. So, it is the environment that predetermines our gene expression. Diet is the most important environmental factor for gene expression.” (4)
We have much more power over our health than we may know. This extends to the health of our decedents. According to Discover Magazine November 2006 issue, “It's known that the environment in a mother's womb can alter the development of a fetus. What's eye-opening is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the epigenetic changes wrought by one's diet, behavior, or surroundings can work their way into the germ line and echo far into the future. Put simply, and as bizarre as it may sound, what you eat or smoke today could affect the health and behavior of your great-grandchildren.” (5)
A famous example of epigenetics comes from an experiment done in 2003 by Robert A. Waterland and Randy L. Jirtle with agouti mice. These mice are known to be yellow, obese mice with a tendency towards diabetic health issues. The researchers took genetically identical mice and in the exact same environment fed them the same food. The only difference was that one group was given vitamin B12 and folic acid, both which impact methylation, starting at two weeks before conception and through gestation and weaning. The group that was supplemented had babies who where small and brown and considerably more healthy. They then varied the dose of folic acid and B12 to show the varied results.
I find this mind blowing that the right nutrition at the right time can so dramatically impact the health of our children. Dr. Jayclyn Chasse recognizes three key periods of imprinting our genes: the preconception period, the fetal period, and puberty. All of these times are within the power of the parent to impact for life their children’s health with the correct foods and by eliminating exposure to toxins and creating a happy environment. (3)
This has to do with our power to create health for our children, but what if we missed those key periods or what about for ourselves as adults. For adults, epigenetic change is slower and more subtle, more of a buildup of the likelihood that certain genes, those which lead to age related disease, will be turned on and off. Environment, toxins, and foods that we choose cause certain genes to be on or off at different times increasing the chance of disease. Oftentimes these diseases are a combination of different genes being switched on or off. So far scientists have linked epigenetics to obesity, heart disease, various cancers, autism, and a long list of other disorders. (6)
I hope you can see why I love epigenetics and I hope you feel empowered to take your health into your own hands and not blame genetics.
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3. Chasse, Jayclyn; Epigenetics and Preconception The Ultimate Preventive Medicine.
4. Dr. Natash McBride from her GAPS Group Lesson 10, slide 7
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Picture of DNA Methylation Christoph Bock, CC By-SA 3.0