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What is Epigenetics and How Can It Affect Disease Prevention

 

We are living in a time when doctors and scientists can test our genetic make-up, our DNA, for just about every disease under the sun. What’s wild is that you can actually do this at home with a skin prick test kit. The information garnered from these tests is the first giant leap forward in changing how we handle health and disease and moving towards individualized health care.

More often than not, people get the tests, share their ethnic make-up because that’s usually interesting, but what about the rest? So what? You found the genetic marker for (fill in the blank here for the condition). Does this mean you need to come and get screened more often so that when the disease finally shows up we can all celebrate that we caught it early? Or is there more we can do, individualized protocols that can keep the risk at bay and change the genetic expression?

There is a lot that we can do in our daily lives that contributes to disease prevention – and that’s why I’d like to discuss epigenetics.

Waiting to be diagnosed with a genetic disease, or hoping that you don’t get it, is a very scary way to go through life. We’d all benefit if the answer to the ‘So what‘? factor becomes ‘So what can I do now to prevent this?‘ This is where epigenetics comes into play.

what is epigenetics?

We know, often without any tests, that if there is a condition that runs in the family then it is often something we need to watch out for. Whenever I hear this, I often have to refrain from asking whether it is the disease that runs in the family or the lifestyle.

What few of us realize is that we can change how we play the genetic cards we’ve been dealt. We may have a certain set of cards in our hand, but we have the ability to re-regulate the DNA sequence to alter its expression. That is what epigenetics is about.

Epigenetics is the ability to alter the expression of our genes by ‘epi’ or outer influencing factors.

You see, your genes are not your destiny. Our human genes actually haven’t changed, as it takes millions of years for this to happen. What is changing is their expression.

When the medical science community – and often organizations that raise funds for these communities – cite “genetics” as non-modifiable risk factors, they are only telling half the story. It is true that genetics can indicate a higher risk of a specific condition, but the way we live on a daily basis can influence the expression of those genes. In short, this means that if we know we carry a cancer gene, or autoimmune disease runs in the family, we don’t have to watch and wait for it to show up for us – we can work towards preventing it. Remember: early detection is not the same as prevention.

The amazing part about epigenetics and disease prevention is that we can flick the switches on or off in order to promote health and prevent disease, and epigenetic changes can be reversible. Meaning that by cleaning up our diet and lifestyle, we can impact the trajectory of our health, even after a diagnosis.

Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist, was one of the first to study this. He looked at identical twins in which one twin ate the traditional diet they grew up with and the other moved to a big city and adopted a modernized, processed diet. Their genetics were identical, but through diet and lifestyle, the genetics began to express themselves in different ways. These genetic expressions were then passed along through generations.

This is a very logical explanation for why my generation is generally more predisposed to a whole lot more autoimmune diseases, cancer and diabetes than my grandmother’s generation.

A recent study showed that 43% of geriatric millennials (a horrible term, no doubt, but this is considered people born between 1980 and 1985), already suffer from at least one degenerative disease. That’s horrible.

Predisposition to disease is carrying an increasingly heavy burden in every subsequent generation that strays further from a natural, whole foods-based diet to rely on processed food, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and less exposure to clean air, water, nature, and a break from screens and other tech.

Modern research bears this out as well and shows that epigenetics influences a wide variety of common diseases such as cancer. Plus what mothers consume during their pregnancies can also impact their child’s gene expression and health as they grow and develop.

factors that influence epigenetics (and can help with disease prevention)

What I find incredibly empowering about epigenetics is that we have a lot of agency to change, reverse or prevent the way our genes are expressed.

Diet and Nutrition

As with many health topics on this blog, nutrition plays an enormous role in our overall health and diet and gene expression is no different: what we eat has an impact on the ways our genes are expressed.

One of the ways our genes are influenced is through DNA methylation, a process that helps to turn genes off. Certain nutrients aid this process, such as choline, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 and folate (you might recognize some of these nutrients as crucial for pre-conception planning and pregnancy).

However, in general, a nutrient-rich diet packed with vegetables, fruits, fibre, nourishing fats, antioxidants and quality sources of protein are highly supportive.

Emerging evidence indicates that supporting our gut microbiome – the community of bacteria in our digestive tract – helps to modify our gene expression. You can learn more about how to rebuild the microbiome in this podcast episode.

What You Can Do


Our Environment

Our external and internal environments play a large role in our epigenetics. Environmental factors such as pollution, the chemicals in our food, soil and water, xenoestrogens, plastics, the cleaning products we put down the drain, and the furniture, paints or cookware we have in our homes all have the potential to change our gene expression.

What You Can Do


Chemical Compounds

As with environmental pollutants, there are thousands of harmful chemicals in our food, water, soil and air. Some of the biggest offenders are found in:

What You Can Do

In each of the posts linked above, I share extensive details and alternative options for beauty care products, home furnishings and more that will help you reduce your chemical exposure. So much of the chemicals we are exposed to come from what we consume and what we slather on our bodies, and being mindful of this and working to eliminate or reduce those chemical sources is important. Pick any of the posts above to get started!

For my favourite personal care products to start with, check out this post.


Lifestyle

Lifestyle is a broad term and encapsulates the factors above like nutrition, environment and chemicals, along with additional elements that can impact epigenetics like exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, drug use and stress of all kinds.

What You Can Do


My Experience with epigenetics: crohn’s disease

When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006, I was told there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I am happy to say that through my lifestyle, I have been able to turn off the switches of the disease and turn on the switches that promote good health. I have gone into extensive detail about how I did this in the following posts:

I’ve had genetic testing done (this is the type of thing my husband and I do for fun!) and while it shows that I have the genetic markers for inflammatory bowel disease, I have not had a single sign or symptom of the disease since 2006. I attribute this to the way I live – not luck or happenstance.

If you’re curious about genetic testing, 23 and Me is a good one. It’s useful to work with a health practitioner who can help you make sense of the results and make recommendations. Also, remember that the data isn’t going to be helpful if you’re not prepared to take action or make a commitment based on what you find.

You can feel worry, frustration or a number of other emotions at the gene card you’ve been dealt, but please don’t shrug your shoulders and say to yourself, ‘X disease runs in my family, so I might as well (insert unhelpful behaviour here)’. Yes, we only live once – but don’t we want that life to be meaningful and full of vibrant health?

We have absolutely every reason – and right – to do all we can to redefine our own genetic expression to help ensure the genetic switches responsible for diseases of degeneration and decay don’t get turned on and hopefully, don’t get passed on.

Have a Listen!

These episodes from my Today Is The Day Podcast can further help you understand epigenetics and disease prevention.

Ways to impact genetic expression (and reduce risk of chronic disease)

2 responses to “What is Epigenetics and How Can It Affect Disease Prevention”

  1. Laurie Banks says:

    Hi Meghan, Hoping this will come to you. So, what can I do with Fibromuscular Dysplasia? Found it after having a heart attack at 46 (really healthy me) caused by a SCAD/tear in artery, caused by FMD. Then two more SCAD’s in the past 2 months, same cause, at age 57. Also gastroparesis, maybe also caused by FMD/MALS. Was GF for years, still GI pain would come. Can you help!! Going to MAYO end of August. Hugs, a Canadian/now dual citizen living in Minnesota. So want to get home to Otter Lake, Ontario!!! Hugs and Best Wishes, Laurie (oh, my 25 yr old daughter Annie also has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome -can cause SCAD too)

    • https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/599ccdf73b6d2f26a247dd52e9e5f8b8?s=51&d=blank&r=g Meghan Telpner says:

      Hi Laurie! Thanks for your comment – I’m sorry to hear that you and your daughter are faced with these challenges. I can’t provide specific medical advice to individuals in this forum – your best bet is to work with a health practitioner that you trust, who can come up with a customized protocol for you based on your health history. I hope your trip to Mayo is helpful!

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