Updated: Sep 30, 2019
What is Epigenetics
Because our DNA is unchangeable we used to think that our destiny was fixed and we could do nothing about the hand we were dealt in our health. It could be easy to become fatalistic about whether you would inherit that family disease and say, "It's just in my genes." Epigenetics is showing us that your health could be in your hands much more than you realise.
Epigenetics is the study of chemical reactions that are carefully orchestrated to either switch on a gene or turn it off. Exciting new research is proving that genes are only half the story. The epignome forms a physical structure around your genes and can either tightly wrap it, making it unreadable or stretch it out so that it becomes easily accessible. While DNA is unchangeable, the epignome reacts to signals in the outside world like stress and diet. It modifies the DNA so that our body is going to react differently in the future. With this information, let me show you how you can make your body create the best defense against disease.
Inheritance and Epigenetics
There was an interesting study involving rats. Those mother rats that groomed their young pups with lots of attention and licking produced rats that also grew up to be attentive mothers. However, more than that, those rats grew up to be calmer. The rats that were ignored by their mother grew to be aggressive and anxious. The genes for inherited behaviours were being modified by their environment.
Depending on the environment, those traits - calm or anxious, will become an advantage. In times of plenty and ease, those anxious rats will have a lower social standing while the calm rats thrive. However, where there is a shortage of food and an increase in predators, then the anxious mice may have a better chance of survival.
Interestingly, a researcher can clearly observe adult rats and recognise those who were licked and those who were not nurtured. But more than that, the scientists can investigate the gene expression of these rats and see that the simple behaviour of the mother switched on or turned off hundreds of genes.
How does this affect us as humans? Well, living in a constant state of stress does affect how our bodies respond to disease. When we feel danger or stress, cortisol frees up stored energy to help the 'fight or flight' response. But when too much is produced or is activated over a long period of time then this has been linked to heart disease and depression. Once again, chronic exposure to stress causes gene modifications that cause us to fight harder next time. It also is linked to a greater state of depression and mood disorders later in life.
Environmental Signals that Alter the Epigenetics
Diet, physical activity, toxins and stress have all been shown to alter our genes. Studies of twins have shown that while they are young and experiencing a similar environment their gene expression is similar, but take a look when they are 50 and the genes are expressed very differently.
During the Dutch famine during WWII, where the population were reduced to a quarter of their usual calories, mothers who were pregnant at the time produced babies with low birthweight. There was a higher rate of chronic conditions in later life among those babies born; diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity more than their siblings. However, in the next generation the pattern was repeating. Babies were being born with low birthweight even though the food supply was back to normal. Epigenetics was at play here.
Nutrition and Epigenetics
The Agouti gene in rats produce rats that have yellow fur and are obese and prone to diabetes and heart disease. Usually these rats give birth to pups that are also obeses with yellow fur. Researchers fed two groups of rats - one had nutrient rich food and the result was that the yellow furred rats with susceptibility to disease began to produce offspring with nice brown coats and healthy weight. The genes for disease had also been modified.
Queen bees are another example of how diet switches on certain genes. Worker bees and queen bees are genetically identical but the queen bee is fed on a diet of royal jelly for life and this affects her growth physically; she grows ovaries and a larger abdomen. And it changes her behaviour; she makes a 'piping' sound, attempts to kill other queen bees and participates in mating flights.
In humans, plant foods have been proven to hold the key to healthy gene expression. Parsley is proving to be more than a garnish. Herbs, vegetables and fruits are key to our health. Foods like peppers, celery, mint, turmeric, bananas, citrus, buckwheat, onions, blueberries, and other berries, dark chocolate (yaas! 70% higher), peanuts and other legumes have been shown to have positive influence across the whole gnome. Broccoli and cauliflower have particular cancer fighting properties.
Genes and Cancer
Cancer is a set of abnormal cells that are out of control. Essentially, their genes have been messed up and instead of replicating correctly, they have been activated to promote cell growth. When there is prolific cell growth, the process is unstable and errors in replication occur. We actually have genes to keep cell growth and repair in check, but these are switched off in cancer. We even have the necessary process of a cell to initiate its own suicide when it is detecting damage. The genes that regulate this are also switched off when cancer is present.
Soy has been given a bad rap in the media in the past, but sound research is telling us the opposite. In populations eating large amounts of soy were less prone to certain diseases. Dietary recommendations from the World Cancer Research Fund are that we eat an increase in plant foods - nuts, whole grains and legumes.
Let's look at the effect of different diets. Japanese and Chinese women who were born in the west had 60% higher chance of developing breast cancer. If their grandparents were also born in the west the incidence is 50% higher again. There is a higher rate of hormone-dependant cancers seen on a western diet which is low in fibre and high in sugar and fat. Asian women enjoying an Asian-style diet which is high in fibre and soy and low in fat have reduced risk of breast cancer. Asian men have the lowest rates of prostate cancer in the world also.
Dr Dean Ornish has done multiple studies on patients with prostate cancer. In one group the men were given pharmaceuticals to treat their cancer for 90 days. The other group were placed on a lifestyle plan that included low-fat, vegan diet, exercise and stress reduction techniques. At the end of 90 days, the first group showed no change to their gene expression. The second group however, were found to have 500 genes modified - most of which contributed to cancer. Other of his studies has shown a 30% reduction in cancer markers in as little as 11 days!!!
Many studies struggle to have their participants stick to the plan when they are only slightly different from their current lifestyle. Dr Ornish runs a program where 85-90% of his 3000 patients are still adhering to the program after 1 year. This is a program that asks them to make significant changes to their lifestyle. Ornish says that when people are making significant changes to the way they eat and live and feeling the affects so profoundly, they are more likely to continue. They quickly start to feel better and are willing to stick to the program long-term! If you want to set yourself up to have the best defense against disease, it is clear that a plant-based lifestyle that includes exercise and self care are vital. Why not take Dr Ornish at his word and try a significant change. You will be modifying your genes to guard against disease and chances are you will feel so much better that you'll never want to go back.