One of my favorite topics, as many of you know, is epigenetics. It’s the burgeoning area of science that has blown apart the traditional nature-nurture dichotomy by examining the lifestyle-induced activation or dampening of genes. Epigenetics is increasingly filling in the gaps for understanding and monitoring degenerative disease risk. If you’re relatively new to MDA, take a look-see at my past articles (Gene Expression, What I Mean By “Reprogramming Your Genes”, Gene Expression: Location, Location, Location, Environmental Toxins and Gene Expression, Epigenetics and Depression) for a good Primal introduction to the concept. That said, when it comes to science there’s always more to read and know. New discoveries. Bold initiatives. Elegant correlations. Confirmed expectations and unexpected wrinkles. It’s what gets me up and roaring in the morning. Gladly, I’m not the only one….
I’m fascinated by the idea that all the signals I send my body through diet and exercise and other environmental conditions can, as you say, literally reprogram my genes. I’m always on the lookout now for research that shows how lifestyle factors are related to gene expression. Have you seen anything new in your studies?
Thanks to Stephanie for the shared enthusiasm and question for today. In the last several years, research into gene expression has garnered increasing attention and dollars. Popular media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, PBS and Time Magazine have devoted features to the field. I was even quoted (although quite out of context) in a recent LA Times piece on epigenetics. Foundations and government granting agencies have increasingly supported the expansion of epigenetic research, including a mapping of the human epigenome. (So far, Europe is ahead of the game.) Among the organizations doing amazing work in epigenetics is the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
Much of recent epigenetic research delves into prenatal exposure and subsequent gene expression. Here are some highlights of the latest studies.
- The placenta displays different epigenetic markings throughout pregnancy, which can alert physicians to developing complications like poor fetal growth or preeclampsia.
- Researchers recently compared intestinal gene expression in breastfed and formula fed infants. The intestinal tract acts as a primary site for immune response, particularly in infants whose bodies must quickly learn to adapt to foreign foods outside the sterile womb environment. Glitches in intestinal (and related immune) development can cause food allergies, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. Of particular note, gene expression that regulated cellular response to oxygen deprivation was more pronounced in breastfed babies, suggesting a possible cause for why breastfed infants have a lower SIDS risk.
- Prenatal exposure to common environmental toxins can induce epigenetic changes that put a child at more risk for later cancer than post-birth exposure does. The study focused particularly on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are associated with oil and coal burning.
- Scientists have found that the memory ability of offspring may be impacted by their mother’s early learning environment. Mice with genetic memory impairment that were offered a sensory rich environment (toys, activity and attention) had offspring that showed enhanced memory ability even when the pups themselves received none of the environmental benefits their mothers had.
- Gene expression related to longevity and cancer was negatively impacted by alcohol and typical Western diet consumption.
- Researchers have identified food compounds that inhibit epigenetic dysfunction. Sulforaphane (broccoli), indole-3-carbinol (cruciferous vegetables) and organosulfur (garlic and onions) compounds are among the most protective food related substances discovered so far.
The take home message here is that you can literally reprogram your genes to live a long, healthy, productive, happy and energetic life. You can either sit idly by and end up a victim of poor gene expression, or you can take control of the signals you send your body (through diet, movement, stress management and many other lifestyle behaviors) and become the best version of you possible.
I’ll be sure to keep covering the latest epigenetic updates. Fascinating stuff to be sure. I hope these updates have offered some food for thought. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for the great comments and questions, and keep ‘em coming!