Have you heard of epigenetics? Our DNA is inherited and cannot change, but did you know that you can influence which part of your DNA is expressed and active?
Genes are like recipes. The dishes that result are our bodies. When we cook, we may improvise if we don’t have certain ingredients with substitutions, or want to enhance particular flavors by adding or removing ingredients, or alter texture by missing certain steps. And just like how we may alter the recipes, epigenetics is the changes our bodies can make to genetic expression depending on environmental factors it encounters like food, exercise, medication, pollution, etc.
Don’t believe me? Think about identical twins – they pretty much have the same DNA and yet we have seen numerous TV documentaries, research studies following twins where one has perfect health but the other has a serious illness like cancer/obesity etc. Twin studies have been so helpful in progressing our understanding of chronic diseases and is the perfect illustration that your health is in your own hands.
So if you have ever thought – oh, I’m going to get ‘so-and-so’ disease because it runs in my family, you are in luck because you may be able to change your genetic destiny (and that of your children’s) by lifestyle measures.
“You are what you eat” takes on a brand new meaning.
The relationship between exercise and health which doctors have observed and preached for years suddenly makes sense (as mentioned in my tip of the week, exercise has been linked to up-regulation of many beneficial genes associated with health). What I found really interesting, is studies that have reported the mind may have a role to play in epigenetics too, and how mindfulness meditation can affect genetic activity (more research is needed for a definitive causal link though).
I think, therefore I am…
Modern lifestyle is unfortunately inundated with toxins most of which we can’t really do anything about – pollution, chemicals in everyday products, radiation, which can all contribute to epigenetic changes, but the one thing that IS within our control is FOOD. If your diet consists of foods which cause inflammation in the body (yes, a big culprit is sugar, but I won’t preach because I’m just as guilty as you!), it can activate/disable genes and lead to illnesses.
Our bodies have an innate ability to heal itself. Cells have a natural anti-oxidant ability to deal with free radicals and repair damage; the ones that can’t repair are programmed to die (apoptosis). However, when the genetic expressions are altered the cells lose their natural ability to heal/die and replicate normally, and disease results. We are all bombarded with adverts of ‘anti-oxidants’ and superfoods – whilst I think there is definitely a place for these, making sure you reduce the oxidative stress by cutting out foods that cause inflammation in the first place is equally important (and cheaper!).
After all, we have entered into an era of chronic diseases because of modern lifestyle – so surely the best treatment is to try and reverse some of those harmful lifestyles that have led to the development of allergy/chronic diseases?
Why am I talking about this on an allergy blog? Well, because there is a lot of research now linking epigenetics to the development of allergy. All the factors I mentioned in ‘Why is allergy on the rise?‘ may be changing the expression of certain genes that then translates to how our immune system functions. For example (and this has not been proven yet and is my own theory) how does an imbalanced gut microbiome lead to allergy and other chronic diseases? Well, we know that these bacteria produce important signalling molecules, so could it be that these molecules somehow are altering the genes that control the immune system and make it adopt a pathway (the Th2 pathway) that we know is linked to allergies?
If you have read my article on peanut allergy prevention, you will know that it has been shown the early introduction of peanuts may prevent the development of peanut allergy. That is only part of the story though (in my opinion). We need to also look at what it is that is switching on/off our genes to make the immune system overreact. It is definitely a multi-factorial process, and that’s why I have a holistic approach looking from different angles because it is not a single solution problem.
Epigenetics is a really exciting area, not only because it might bring new medical treatments but because it is so empowering for patients to know that they really CAN alter their bodies through their actions. I believe we have only just begun our journey and its implications for health and medicine is immense.
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(read my article next week on the allergic march to learn how allergic diseases unfold throughout childhood and why I was so keen to help my kids change their epigenetics)