Epigenetics

In the early 1990’s, which is when the bottom dropped out of my health, the American Dietetic Association told us that a healthy diet meant eating less meat, more soy, a low-fat diet, cutting out salt, eliminating eggs (cholesterol), dairy, gluten grains and eating more fiber. We cut the fat off our meat, removed the skin from chicken and traded these natural fats for deep fried, hydrogenated oils. In the 1990’s, we were introduced to foods that were produced with chemicals and genetically engineered products. Suddenly, there had to be a distinction between “organic” and “non-organic”.

In 2001, the Human Genome Project took Alfred Sturtevant’s original gene mapping to a new level, that was like us going to the moon, in comparison. This project revealed about 20,500 human genes. In 2003 the full sequence was completed and published. The complete human sequence can now identify their locations, as well as detailed information about the structure, organization and function of the complete set of human genes. These are the basic set of “instructions” that can be inherited, for the development and function of a human being.

It was hoped that the genetic findings for common illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and mental illness would be found. The project leaders believed that faulty genes, inherited from the parents, were a likely cause of most disease. Every week some new genetic “break-threw” would make front-page news, but a closer look reveals a very different reality. Faulty genes rarely cause, or even mildly predispose us to disease, and as a consequence, the science of human genetics is in deep crisis.

By 2009, despite more than $100 billion spent on the project, geneticists still had not found more than a fractional genetic basis for human disease. Not only was this the most expensive science project ever conceived, but it failed to reach the goal that it assured the world that it would achieve. The likelihood that further searching might rescue the day appears slim. The most likely explanation for why they have not found any genes that are linked to common diseases is because, they do not exist. So, we are left to conclude that disease conditions are the direct result of a combination of nutrition, or the lack there of, and environmental conditions, both in the gut and in our world, but predominantly the microbes that live in the digestive tract of each person.

The failure and disappointments of the Human Genome Project in the past ten years has awakened scientists to quantify and appreciate just how much of our daily biological existence depends on microbes. More understanding about the environment of the intestines and the gut microbiome followed. The gut microbiome contains various kinds of gut bacteria that have very specialized jobs and affect various specific processes in the body and their interplay with virtually every organ system; bones, brain, energy and so much more. The interdependent, co-evolution that occurs between us and the microbes that live inside us is something that we are just beginning to understand.

Since 1999, Epigenetics and Neutrogenomics have come onto the nutritional scene. Epigenetics and nutritional genomics are new fields that are taking baby steps.

In school we were taught that you get your genes from your parents and then you’re done. Now we know that sitting on top of those genes is something called the epic genome. All the genes in your body have all the information to make every part of your body. In our skin we have genes to make lungs. Those genes are turned off, because we don’t want to have lung tissue for skin. Genes are turned on and off, so that they are expressed differently, at different times in our lives. What we eat, think, feel, do, our emotions, beliefs, rest and sleep, exercise, environment, who we associate with - all these things turn genes on and off. Nutritional genomics is how we do this, by eating food that our body recognizes, because over millennium, we’ve eaten these foods. When we eat a new food or food-like substance, the body doesn’t recognize it. Man-made molecules turn on inflammatory genes and turn off anti-inflammatory genes.

Epigenetics is the study of how you can take the genes you were born with, and change the way those genes express themselves. You can’t change genes, but you can change gene expression. You can’t change your genetic code, because genes are like the hardware in a computer, but you can change how your genes express themselves, which functions very much like the software in a computer. That software is your habitual thoughts, the food and drink you put into your body to nourish it, or not, and the environment you are exposed to. The human genome project was based on the idea that our genetic code controls everything about who we are, our level of health and how long we will live, but those variables are not set in stone.

For example: You may have inherited a gene that predisposes you to heart disease or diabetes, but if you live a clean lifestyle, you may silence that gene or reduce its affect on you by 50%, for example. That is a positive. However, at the same time, you could take a perfectly good gene and trash it. You may have a gene that would make you a great athlete, but you never exercise or you may have a gene that gives you an unusually long life expectancy of around 100 years old, but if you smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol for 20 years, you could shorten your life expectancy by 40 years.

You can change which gene is turned on or off, even though generations of your family have a particular predisposition to a particular condition. You can change how your genes are modulated, whether their volume is up or down. For example, your grandmother may have grown up on junk food and soda, and been exposed to environmental toxins and made poor lifestyle choices that affected your parents genes, and then imprinted on your genes. Though you may have inherited a gene that predisposes you to heart disease or diabetes, if you live a clean lifestyle, then you may silence that gene or reduce its affect on you by 50%, for example. That is a positive. However, at the same time, you could take a perfectly good gene and trash it. You may have a gene that would make you a great athlete, but you never exercise or you may have a gene that gives you an unusually long life expectancy of around 100 years old, but if you eat processed foods, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol for 20 years, you could shorten your life expectancy by 40 years.

Now we understand what happens to cause certain genes to get coded, how the actual coding of those proteins happens and what happens once those coded proteins start working. Now we know what effects oxidation, different enzymes and nutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients from real food, chemicals from food-like substances, toxins and stress have on genes. We understand the role of food and how it interacts with the body, in a way that we were never able to know it before. You can change gene expression for the better or worse, just by your diet, exercise, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Genes are that sensitive and powerful. You can change your genes through what you eat, think, feel, how you move and your environment. This is not some futuristic fantasy or hypothetical concept, but reality today. We don’t have to be victims of whatever our parents did to their genes and passed on to us. We have control over our lives, but also over the lives of our grandchildren, for the good or for the bad. But they also have control over changing how the genes you give them express themselves, for good or bad. You can also change your genetics within your lifetime. Like me, you may have trashed your genes in your youth, but now much wiser, you can turn back the clock and change how your genes express themselves in the future. This puts the power back into your hands. How you choose to use it is up to you.

What Epigenetics teaches us is that DNA is no longer your hard-wired destiny, where you are biologically screwed for life. DNA is your genetics, but the lifestyle choices you make can alter gene expression in a very short period of time. If I choose an apple, over the donut, the gene that controls everything from my immune system, to whether or not I develop diabetes or heart disease, those genes will be positively affected. I will be boosting my immune function. But if I choose the manufactured food-like substances, whatever that product happens to be, the exact opposite occurs.You have a lot of power over your health, so use it!

While I was growing up and during most of my initial adult years, I kept hearing about genetics, which were blamed for all sorts of things; “Oh, you are genetically predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. Your grandparents and your parents had this or that condition, so you will too and you can’t do anything about it, sorry. That's your genetic destiny.” We were predetermined to have a heart attack if our parents or grandparents did. Many were left feeling helpless, hopeless and defeated. I on the other hand, I expected to live a very healthy and long life, because my great-grandmothers died at 97 & 101, so it was confusing to me why I should be so sick and almost die at such a young age. I am proof that you can trash your genes, if you make unhealthy lifestyle choices. I didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs, so why was I suffering as though I was someone who did?

The chemicals in manufactured, highly refined processed foods are no different, in terms of “unhealthy”, than cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs in terms of their affect on my genes and immunity. You may be in the situation where your mother was a diabetic and obese, and your father a smoker and an alcoholic, for example. Because of this, you feel hopeless, because you think that your genes are working against you. That was the deck of cards you were dealt. But, you do have a say in how those genes express themselves. You will have to work harder than someone who doesn’t have those genes, but it’s worth it. It’s worth your life. Epigenetic's prove that we have an amazing potential and gives us a sense of empowerment to change our destiny. We do have a say in the matter now. It’s really doesn’t matter what genes you have, as much as what you do with those genes, based on your lifestyle choices. Epigenetic's is one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in a century.

When I choose the manufactured food-like substance, I erode my immune function and increase my risk for all things; addiction, disease, shorter life expectancy, etc. It is tremendously important to understand how powerful you are and how the decisions you make mentally, nutritionally and physically make all the difference. If I did have an addictive gene, but I never ate the hyper-palatable, manufactured processed foods, I would have almost no chance of developing a food addiction as previously described. I, personally, have no addictive genes, but an abusive childhood trashed all that and caused me to overeat for psychological reasons. If I kept doing so, I could create an addictive gene and pass it on to my children.

People who are at greater risk for developing a food addiction are those who have an addictive gene in their family; smokers, alcoholics, drugs, gambling, etc., because it tends to be a transfer addiction. Drugs and foods follow the same path into the reward center of the brain. Both of them are rewarding. Without that addictive gene, the mind says, “I don’t find that cigarette rewarding, so I am not going to do that again”. But food is a different thing all together. All of us eat food. Some people do not have addictive genes, but they were constantly exposed to these hyper-palatable foods, and there the chances are that some will develop food addictions and some will not. This is what is referred to as the environmental or epigenetic influence. Another group have the obesity gene or they eat compulsively, binge, and eat for emotional reasons to soothe themselves. This is more of a psychological reason for overeating. Usually they are not eating a head of lettuce, but the manufactured foods. With that in mind, the majority of people are going to become addicted to certain hyper-palatable foods. There are many paths to food addiction.

Since all of this information about Epigenetic's is true, we have to ask ourselves the question. What are we feeding our children? This is very important to understand, because let’s say a man and a woman are going to have a child. Both of them are not exercising much and they eat what ever they want; junk food primarily. Both have a family history of some addictive-like behaviors. That is passed on to their children. We know that know because researchers have been able to study 2, 3 and 4 generations of families who have been eating this stuff and passing that on to their children. We have a real obligation to explain this to young people. Your lifestyle will be passed on to your children, and their children … It is inherited, not so much by genetics, but by learning lifestyles. The power of those lifestyle choices, right now, are critical to the health of future generations. If we keep feeding them manufactured foods, epigenetically, what are we doing to them? What are they going to be doing when they have children of their own?

Lifestyle - Health professionals really need to expand their vision of what it means to be healthy beyond symptoms and medicine. People need to see that being healthy has everything to do with their lifestyle; what they eat, how that food is prepared, what they think, how they feel about life, how often they exercise, how they sleep, how they breathe, how they interact with other people, the environment and animals, how generous and gracious they are. All the things that make us human beings. It is impossible to separate the mind from the body and the body from the mind. What affects one, immediately affects the other. Health is all about lifestyle and developing a holistic view of human health. As I was growing up there was a dichotomy between nature and nurture, between body and mind. This 1950’s philosophy has expired. It’s not one or the other. What you are born with gets expressed or changed, depending upon how it interacts with the environment. This is the nature of Epigenetics and Nutrigenomics. All these fields that currently study how nature and nurture interact together to produce health. It’s not one or the other, but both, working hand in hand.

When it comes to medical care, people are constrained by the “medication or no medication” model, which is essentially what medical practice has been reduced to. It’s all or nothing. Patients are treated with meds and/or therapy, but people deserve other options. I began to really search for those options when I was facing my own health struggles. It led me to the study of Epigenetics. I see a unique opportunity for people to not only influence their physical and mental health, but also benefit future generations. It has been my experience that, once you understand how to leverage Nutrigenomics for disease prevention, you really don’t need medication, because you rarely get sick. I became interested in supplements, like fish oils, herbs, minerals and vitamins that were naturally intended to be our “medicine” and that possess the ability to greatly increase health. Above all, let your food be your medicine. Whole foods have really strong anti-inflammatory effects and they can turn on and off gene signaling.


If you have questions, email johnna@wholefamilyhealthandnutrition.com to schedule your free introductory consultation. I look forward to serving you. JVW