The modern science of Epigenetics began with a few litters of skinny brown mice at Dukes University in 2003. What made these baby mice surprising was their lineage – their parents, grandparents and generations before them, were bred to have a gene that made them fat and yellow. The only difference was these mothers had been given what was essentially a prenatal vitamin, which left the gene intact while somehow turning it off. By the way the brown mice were not only slimmer but had lower rates of diabetes and cancer than their yellow ancestors. Similarly pregnant mice supplemented with choline had babies that developed super memories and as adults broke all the maze records.
External triggers suppress a gene by a process called methylation. A methyl marker on a gene turns it off, partially or completely. An environmental trigger either adds or removes a methyl marker, thus affecting the expression of that gene. Epigenetic triggers could be a vitamin, a toxin, a nutrient deficiency or even an emotional experience. They can come from your mother, grandmother or father, and can occur before conception, in utero, shortly after birth or throughout adulthood. And methyl markers may be passed down to future generations.
Babies born in Holland after the “Hunger Winter” famine of 1944-45 had low birth weights and, as adults, were at higher risk of obesity, coronary disease and certain cancers. A generation later their babies also had low birth weights. A British study found that men who started smoking before puberty had sons (but not daughters) with a higher risk of obesity. Grooming by mother rats affects their babies’ brain development, causing them to grow up calmer and more confident than babies ignored by their mothers. Identical twins experience different triggers throughout their life that alter their risk for diseases such as cancer, allowing one to develop cancer while the other does not.
What are the implications of epigenetics? The importance of prenatal nutrition and maternal nurturing are obvious. More important is the epiphany that we need not be slaves to our genes. Just because our parents and grandparents suffered from obesity, diabetes or cancer doesn’t mean we have to. We can – and I would argue should – do something about it. Improving our nutrition, reducing stress, getting sufficient exercise and rest could free us from much of our genetic destiny.
Source: Survival of the Sickest – the surprising connections between disease and longevity by Dr Sharon Moalem, 2007
For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.