What to do when you have bad genetics and epigenetics
In the past it was thought that whether we were fat or thin, smart or stupid, healthy or ill, it was all written in our DNA.
In 2003 when the human genome mapping project was completed, it became obvious that genes couldn’t explain everything. There were still many unanswered questions such as why do some people who are genetically predisposed to cancer never develop it? And why do others who lead very healthy lifestyles suffer from terrible diseases? We now understand that the answer lies in epigenetics.
What is Epigenetics ?
Epigenetics is the study of markers that sit on our DNA and alter the way our genes work. It literally means “upon genetics”. During our life, environmental factors such as stress levels, diet, smoking and exposure to chemicals can modify this layer of chemical tags known as our 'epigenome.'
How your lifestyle habits affect future generations
When scientists started studying epigenetics in the mid-’90s, they didn’t believe that these epigenetic tags were passed onto children along with their parents’ DNA. However, it has since become clear that one to two percent of the tags do hang on and make it through to the next generation. So if your father smoked and drank too much, your own children could end up struggling with the same demons. Yikes.
The good news is that your epigenome isn’t absolute – it may or may not be expressed in future generations and it can be altered through healthy lifestyle habits.
Your children are what you eat
Methyl groups are important epigenetic tags that modify the way the genes they cling to express themselves. In other words, they can silence or exaggerate the characteristics carried by those genes.
Numerous methyl-donating nutrients, such as folic acid, B vitamins and choline, can be found in everyday foods including meat, vegetables and nuts. By eating a diet high in these nutrients, you can significantly alter your epigenome and the way your genes express themselves. So if you’re concerned about any bad genetic or epigenetic baggage you might be carrying, a healthy diet could be your best defence.
In particular, a mother’s methyl intake during pregnancy can have a considerable impact on her baby’s health. Not only does a methyl-deficient diet increase the risk of asthma and neural tube defects in babies, but experiments on mice have shown that it can also predispose offspring to obesity, cancer and diabetes.
Aren’t those good reasons to take your prenatal vitamins and eat well when you’re pregnant?
Men’s diets matters too
An analysis of the medical records in a remote Swedish community that was struck by periods of famine in the mid-1800s found that men who experienced food abundance and overate between the ages of nine and 12 had grandchildren who lived significantly shorter lives than those who experienced food shortages.
The main causes of the grandchildren’s shorter lifespans were heart disease and diabetes, implying that the men’s gluttonous ways still had an impact two generations later.
Scientists in a new field of study known as nutrigenomics are now attempting to devise personalised nutrition plans based on individuals’ genotypes. Until that’s a reality, do your descendants a favour and skip the drive-through.