In high school biology genetics is introduced as merely a game of human roulette, determining hair color, eye color, and what diseases you are most at risk for developing. A common lab activity is rolling dice to determine which characteristics you might receive. Epigenetics shines new light on the basic understanding of DNA. We used to believe that genes determined everything, it was the blueprint that a body followed through life. Health and disease potential were fixed and set in your DNA. Since the early 1970’s, those beliefs have been changed through the discovery of epigenomes, and how they affect the human body. The epigenome is the sum of the chemical compounds that have been added to the entirety of an individual’s DNA (genome) in response to the environment (i.e. diet, stress…) as a way to regulate the activity and expression of all the genes (epigenetics) within the genome. While DNA are the different pieces of the puzzle that is the body, epigenetics is the directions for how those genes, the “pieces” are used. This occurs throughout life. Epigenetic alterations can and will occur at any time, including conception, pregnancy, puberty, stress and beyond. These are normal processes that take place throughout the course of existence, and control how a body changes and adapts to its environment. In addition to these normal processes, it has been discovered that environmental factors and life events can affect each individual’s epigenome as well, which means you have a significant amount of control over your health now and your health in the future. Epigenetics brings your health within your grasp. It means that you have influence over your health and the health of future generations. Lives are no longer determined by the game of human roulette that takes place during conception.
You have the ability to affect your own long-term health and well-being by combining what is known about your own genetics (past), with your current physical state (present). Then it’s a matter of making lifestyle choices to optimize future health. Partnering with a Integrative medicine physician can help optimize and restore your wellness potential by analyzing your genetic makeup through your epigenetic expression. Epigenetics has the ability to change how your genes are expressed without changing the DNA sequence itself. This is done by acting like a light switch, turning genes on and off, or as a dimmer, controlling how intense the gene expression is.
Epigenetics in action is most clearly seen with identical twins. Identical twins contain the identical sequence of genetic DNA code. One identical twin may find themselves at higher risk than their sibling for things like mental health disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, Crohn’s disease and arthritis. This is due to the difference in environmental and lifestyle factors between the twins that have resulted in different epigenetic expression, despite identical genetics. While it is true that epigenetics has the ability to put you at higher risk for disease, it also gives you the ability to influence the expression of your DNA with healthy lifestyle choices to optimize and restore wellness potential. Epigenetics can begin with nutrition as certain foods can reverse DNA damage, like broccoli, turmeric, and green tea. Being deprived of sufficient sleep can negatively affect gene activity, while exercise has also been shown to have many positive effects on gene expression. Some studies have even shown that the act of meditation can help suppress the expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Incorporating intentional, mindful actions (like gratitude and kindness) can help to encourage your optimal epigenetic expression.
Incredibly, DNA isn’t the only thing that you pass down to your children. Though most of the epigenetic modifications are wiped clean with each new generation, ready to respond to a brand-new set of environmental stimuli, some of them can appear for multiple generations. This is called transgenerational inheritence. For instance, a study of Holocaust survivors with PTSD suggest the possibility that survivors shared genetic expression changes with their children that made them more reactive to stress. This is called Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma (TTT). Transgenerational inheritance is also evident from the Hunger Winter Families Study which showed that famine during early pregnancy versus late pregnancy resulted in different epigenetic effects on the metabolism of their children. Women that are pregnant may pass on these epigenetic tags to their offspring during pregnancy, and if they happen to be pregnant with a girl, their children may also pass the epigenetic tags to their future offspring. This transgenerational inheritance is not exclusive to mothers as it has been shown in animal studies that fathers can pass on epigenetic changes as well. This is how a stressor can alter the genetic expression of the individual for the rest of their life, but also effect the genetic expression of future generations. We can positively impact our health, our lives, and the health of future generations through epigenetics by healthy lifestyle choices such as: good nutrition, avoiding stress, and exercising.
Epigenetics is a relatively new science that is making huge progress and promise in treating diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many more. Scientists are testing drugs that can remodel your epigenome to fight cancer. Instead of using high doses of toxic chemotherapy to attack the cancer cells (associated with significant, serious side effects), patients in trials are receiving lower doses of medication, as a result of epigenomic targeting, directed specifically towards the cancer cells while bypassing healthy cells. These patients are showing positive results and are suffering fewer side effects from the treatments. Scientists are also currently exploring the possibility of using epigenetic therapy to treat other diseases.
Epigenetics is not just useful in the treatment of disease. The real benefit of epigenetics is in the prevention of disease. The ability to identify epigenetic potential for disease allows the ability to prescribe and incorporate epigenetic lifestyle changes to prevent disease initiation and to restore optimal wellness potential. Epigenetics allows the change of view and perspective from one of disease to one of wellness.
Epigenetic expression is a quickly evolving scientific area of study that holds many promising opportunities for patients and families. Not only does epigenetic expression give you more control over your own long-term health, but it also gives you the opportunity to make healthy choices to influence future generations. For those that have a family history of cancer, heart disease, or many other inheritable illnesses, epigenetics can give them the opportunity to write their own story and influence their DNA to optimize their overall health and well-being. You are more than a simple game of genetic roulette. Partnering with a doctor that looks at your genetic makeup, as well as your specific, individual epigenetic expression, can help you make the right long term lifestyle choices to meet your individual goals and to optimize your wellness potential now and in the future.
To begin your epigenetic future call our office at 865.675.9355 and watch our latest Wellness Lunch & Learn on Epigenetics.