You are what you eat.
The more time scientists spend with the human body, the more they realize that what you eat does matter. Not only that, but the environment that you live in and the thoughts that you choose to think matter just as much as the food and products that you consume.
You may have heard this before. And yet, because we don’t sprout broccoli hair or sugar crystal cells, what we eat and what we think can sometimes seem far removed from the body.
At the start of the year, many of us decide to make a New Year’s Resolution.
We may pick up a book of joyful affirmations in order to reshape habits and thoughts. Or maybe we decide to fast from food or begin a “diet,” a different way of eating as a way of reshaping our relationship with food and with ourselves. This kind of New Year’s Resolution may be doing more in the long run than you thought possible. Your choices go down into your cells; science shows that what you eat, do, and think influences genetic expression.
And here’s how it happens step-by-step:
The food-body relationship:
In the field of epigenetic research, scientists and doctors know the value that food has in the human body, and they are discovering more facets of this reality everyday. Research in this field is taking off. Why? It turns out that chronic disease like obesity, diabetes, and cancer all have epigenetic factors that play a substantial role in their manifestation.
What exactly is the epigenome?
The epigenome is a sort of biochemical control panel that sits on top of the genetic code and turns the expression of this code either on or off.
Epigenetic activity can determine what your genes do and do not express.
It has been shown in several studies that epigenetic activity influences not only your DNA but also your child’s DNA.
An epigenetic change can be inherited and passed on for four generations.
Epigenetic markers and patterns can shift throughout a person’s lifetime, according to environment, and the foods consumed.
Most of us know something about DNA: we all have it, we inherit it from our parents, and it comes packaged in a sort of instruction book called a chromosome.
The epigenome is a series of markers that sit on top of the genetic code and give it further instruction of what to do and what not to do.
A phenotype is defined as an observable characteristic, like hair color or eye color. It has always been believed that certain genes lead to certain phenotypes. People are often told that they are genetically predisposed to certain traits, illnesses, or diseases.
Science is now finding that food, social behavior, environmental toxins, mental activity, stress, and physical activity all influence what your genes actually do.
This is called phenotypic expression.
The element of nurture:
Biologist Michael Meaney conducted a study with rats demonstrating that epigenetic change can occur after birth. In his study, he observed mother rats that licked their offspring after birth, and mother rats that ignored their offspring. The licked offspring grew up into relatively calm adult rats whereas the non-licked offspring were skittish and nervous in adult life. Later analysis of brain tissue of both the licked and non-licked rats revealed a marked difference in DNA methylation patterns in the hippocampus cells between each group of rats. The licked rats had better-developed hippocampi and released less cortisol, a stress hormone that influences behavior.
In 2000, Randy Jirtle and Robert Waterland conducted a genetic experiment that began a wave of research surrounding the principles of epigenetics and health. Their experiment began with chubby yellow mice known as agouti mice. Agouti mice are genetically coded to have yellow fur and carry excess weight. These mice have what is known as the agouti gene, making them particularly hungry, yellow, and predisposed to both cancer and diabetes. Because these traits are genetic, their offspring typically present the same characteristics.
When Jirtle and Waterland fed parent agouti mice a diet that was rich in methyl doners such as choline, betaine, folic acid, and vitamin B12, they were far less likely to have offspring that expressed the agouti gene. A methyl doner rapidly alters genetic expression, either activating or silencing certain genes. This experiment is significant because it proved that there is a developmental and fetal basis for adult-onset disease. (1), (3)
BPA in plastic affects genetic expression.
As an interesting side-note, methyl doners also counteract the CpG hypomethylation caused by bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a compound that is widely used in the plastics industry and has lately been under much scrutiny due to its toxic effects on the endocrine system. Research has found that in agouti mice, BPA plastic decreases methylation and increases the incidence of phenotypic expression of the agouti gene, leading to mice that are yellow, overweight, and likely to become obese and diabetic in adulthood. (2)
Moshe Szyf, another pioneer in epigenetic research, has shown that DNA-methylation machinery shares some signaling pathways that lead to cancerous tumor growth.
In other words, certain genes have been found to become either under- or over-methylated as cancer progresses. This link between epigenetic markers and cancer is particularly important because it means that blue-print genetics have less to do with cancer than previously thought. Because defects in the epigenome play such a large role in the proliferation of cancer, day-to-day factors such as diet and environment are now widely accepted variables that influence cancer, as well as other epigenetic diseases.
WHAT TO REMEMBER MOST ABOUT THIS ARTICLE:
Phenotypic expression – what your genes do – is influenced by food, social behavior, environmental toxins, mental activity, stress, and physical activity. All of these elements are reflected in the epigenome, which is a series of markers that sit on top of the genetic code and give it further instruction of what to do and what not to do.
If you think that you are locked into a disease state because of a “predisposition” to obesity, cancer, diabetes, or even various mental pathologies, think again. Epigenetic research has shown that you can influence the state of your own cells and the cells that your great-grandchildren will inherit without changing the genetic code itself.
Environment plays a big role in epigenetic adaption. Everything from the food that you eat to family dynamics to the city that you live in translates into environment and influences disease susceptibility, behavior, and lifespan.
Awareness. While scientists work out the mechanisms, timing, and consequences of epigenetic change, live with awareness! Make choices in foods that are nutrient dense, such as fresh organic leafy greens, organ meats, dairy sourced from wild or grass-fed animals, cage-free egg yolks that are rich in choline, and foods that are processed as little as possible. This same principle applies to your mental and physical activities: choose thoughts and activities that uplift and empower your day.
Donna Gates is the author of Body Ecology and the creator of the health program by the same name.
Watters, Ethan. “DNA is Not Destiny.” Discover 22 Nov. 2006.
Dolinoy D.C., Huang D., Jirtle R.L. “Maternal Nutrient Supplementation Counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA Hypomethylation in Early Development.” PNAS (2006) 104: 13056 – 13061.
Jirtle, Randy L., Skinner, M. K. “Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Susceptibility.” Nature Reviews (April 2007) 8: 253 – 262.