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Your Epigenetic Inheritance is in Your Beautiful Hands

By Dr. Madeline


When Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin, uncovered the molecular structure of DNA as a double helix, it was an outstanding achievement in science. It led to our increased understanding of basic biology and evolution, as well as the specific inheritance patterns embedded in genes that give one their physical characteristics and propensity for disease or health. We have come to understand that if DNA is changed in some way, it could affect a body’s ability to function optimally. But does DNA tell the whole story? 

Our DNA is divided up into segments we call genes that code for various proteins that go on to do the work of the cell and of our bodies. But what is it that directs the genes? How do genes get turned on and off? The answer to this question lies in understanding the molecules that sit on top of DNA and direct gene action. The molecular architecture that resides on DNA is just as important as the DNA itself. It’s called the epigenome. Without it, DNA is like a mighty orchestra that has no one to conduct it through an intricate, correctly expressed and timed complex symphony of notes.

We inherit our DNA and all the genes they code for from our parents, and what we get is what we get. It is our genetic inheritance. But the epigenome, while also inherited, can be modified and changed throughout life by the environment that we expose ourselves to. This is an incredible gift! It means that while we may not be able to change our DNA, we can direct it and drive our bodies to optimum health if we give ourselves a healthful environment and build a robust epigenetic architecture. 

The health of the epigenome relies on environmental factors like the food we eat, the air we breath, the water we drink, the exercise we practice, and the touch we receive. All of these can play a positive or negative role on the establishment and maintenance of the epigenome. And ultimately, the epigenetic molecules will cue the stop-and-go signals of DNA. Most diseases are not due to genetic mutations (changes in the DNA code), but rather, they are derived from misdirected genetic expressions from a poor epigenome created by the environment. 

When you are in a loving environment and provided with clean water, air, and food, the epignome will direct good genes to be turned on that protect you: like those that make antioxidants. In addition, a healthy epigenome will turn off bad genes, like one’s that could cause cancer or diabetes. This is incredible news because it means that even if certain genes we inherited give us a predisposition to develop disease, there is hope that we can shut these genes off by making positive changes in our environmental choices. In addition to changing our epigenome for the better with a clean environment, there have been many studies that show that one can also affect the epigenetic pattern of our children and grandchildren. This is because our environment not only affects our personal working genes, but additionally affects the genes of the eggs and sperm. 

One of the most prevalent diseases we face today is diabetes. Did you know that scientists study mice who display characteristics of humans with diabetes so that they can study them and help us? These special mice contain an altered gene called agouti and they are obese, yellow, and have other gene expression patterns similar to humans with diabetes. In a study done in 2000, scientists performed a simple experiment. Pregnant agouti mice were fed a diet high in foods that strengthen and  promote positive epigenome building (see infographic for healthful foods to establish a healthy epigenome). Normally agouti mice give birth to more unhealthy agouti mice babies, but the mice born from the mothers that were fed a more healthful diet appeared different. They were thin, brown, lithe healthy baby mice. In this simple experiment of changing the diet of the mother, even though her genes were not changed, the epigenetic pattern changed to positively affect the outcome of the next generation!

Creating an all around healthy environment is essential for a continued healthy population. In addition to food, other negative environmental factors can strip the epigenome of a person’s ability to express their best genes, this can have a negative effect on the next generation. For example, maternal smoking and asthma is correlated with the epigenetic pattern created by the mother that she gives to her offspring. If mom smokes, the child is 1.5X more likely to have asthma. If grandma smokes, the child is 1.8X more likely to have asthma. If mom and grandma both smoke, the child is 2.6X more likely to have asthma.

A natural clean environment can create positive and robust DNA expression and result in a healthier you, healthier children and healthier grandchildren. Examples of foods that build a healthy epigenome are garlic, onions, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, eggs and other whole foods. Clean water and air are also essential. Add in an exercise routine and you’re building healthier genetic cues from the conductor of your genes, your epigenome. Finally, being around people who love you and care for you establishes a powerful and sure path toward your best and healthiest DNA expression.

Bio: The Mad Health Doc has a Ph.D. in molecular cellular and developmental biology. She works at a local college where she teaches in the biology department. When not at work she can be found with her awesome family (which includes 6 chickens). 

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