Q: What is epigenetics and does it have anything to do with my health?
—José V., Greenville, S.C.a:
A: The word literally means “in addition to changes in the genetic sequence.” One of the marvels of evolution is that each human is very similar, yet unique. The reason we are unique is because one of billions of possible sperm and one of maybe a few thousand eggs came together to become each of us. So, the genetic blueprint for any given person will be a unique jumble of maternal and paternal genes that could mix and match in a nearly infinite configuration. That’s how we evolve—helpful traits get passed along because healthier people usually bear more healthy children, who in turn live and thrive to reproductive age.
However, there are other pressures on our genetic code involving factors that turn genes “on” and “off.” Our genetic code is a tightly packed bundle protected by a coating called histones. These can peel back to expose bits of the genetic blueprint in response to very specific “requests” from chemical information delivered to the cell, calling for the building of a certain protein, for example. Sometimes these chemical requests can get mixed up, and the wrong gene (for example, a cancer-causing gene) can get turned on, or a repair enzyme can be made defectively. Epigenetic processes are natural and essential to many functions, but if they occur improperly, there can be major adverse health and behavioral effects.
Did You Know?
Epigenetic processes are natural and essential to many functions, but if they occur improperly, there can be major adverse health and behavioral effects.
Causes of Genetic Changes
A wide variety of illnesses, behaviors, and other health indicators are linked with epigenetic mechanisms, including cancers of almost all types, as well as cognitive, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, and autoimmune dysfunction. Known drivers behind epigenetic processes include heavy metals, pesticides, diesel exhaust, tobacco smoke, flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hormone disruptors (especially soft plastics), pharmaceuticals, radioactivity, viruses, bacteria, and basic nutrients.
What can be done to reduce the potential for epigenetic changes that can increase risk of disease? Looking at the list of known drivers, living a clean life should come to mind. It’s really that simple. Of course in an increasingly polluted world, it’s difficult to live a completely clean life. But doing your very best will make a huge difference, especially if you plan on having children or your children want to be parents.
Start with making a commitment to stop buying food and drink in plastic containers. We simply must reduce the demand for plastic, which is choking up our detox mechanisms on a personal and planetary level. Buy a few stainless steel water bottles and keep them in your car, in your gym bag, at work, and by your bedside. Recycle your old plastic Tupperware and invest in reusable glass containers. Always keep cloth shopping bags in your car, and a small compressible bag in your purse. Never take a new plastic bag at the store. Just stop.
Top Gene-Supporting Nutrients
Certain supplements and nutrients can amplify our detoxification capacity. In order to clear toxins effectively, the bowels have to work well (a subject of many of these columns). You need to sweat regularly (exercise or sauna—mix it up) and also have functional urination. It’s normal for urine to be a bit yellow in the morning, but mostly it should be nearly clear. If not, drink more water.
One of the major ways in which the environment can epigenetically alter your DNA is via a process called methylation. Some people do not “methylate” well and can be helped by taking methylated vitamins, in particular B vitamins. More is definitely not better. Look for a B multi with methylcobalamin (the active form of B) in doses in the 1,000 mcg range, and methylfolate (not “folic acid,” which is synthetic) in the 500 mcg range.
Vitamin C is also helpful in locking in good changes and repairing cell replication mistakes. I prefer a buffered powder “to bowel tolerance.” Cut back the dose if stools get loose. Glutathione is arguably the most potent antioxidant produced endogenously, and is especially potent for lung repair. The main peptide in glutathione is NAC, which is a fantastic and much more affordable option if you aren’t ill, but simply want to maintain good health. I recommend taking 600–1,200 mg of NAC at bedtime. Take the higher dose if you’re trying to clear an infection, especially if your mucous secretions seem sticky or difficult to expectorate.
Most animals make their own vitamin C. But our ancestors lost this ability some 25 million years ago, so we have to obtain it through diet or supplements.
Many of us are also low on minerals because of soil depletion, so a good multimineral supplement can also help cells function optimally. I prefer liquid multiminerals because of their excellent absorption.
What You Eat = Roughly 80 Percent of Your Health
Sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and kindness can all favorably change epigenetics. For younger women, these epigenetic improvements can be passed down to your children. You might be familiar with the popular epigenetic study showing that when mother rats lick their pups, they leave epigenetic marks on their babies’ DNA. This, in turn, helps the pups grow up to be calm adult rats. On the other hand, pups who receive very little licking, grooming, or nursing from their moms tend to grow up more anxious. It wasn’t their genes that dictated their stressed-out behavior, but their epigenome, which was shaped by the nurturing behavior of their mother early in life. Could this hold true for humans? New research suggests that it might.
What goes into your mouth determines about 80 percent of your health profile. Some people have “better genes” than others, but all of us are at risk of pushing our genes in the wrong direction if we persistently ingest unnatural chemicals. If you truly desire health, choose the cleanest food and water possible every day. It’s important to frame these choices with a joyous desire to be the best possible person you can during your time on the earth. Don’t think of making healthy food choices from a perspective of “deprivation.” Instead, make a commitment to self-care that is gentle, authentic, and consistent.
Your unique self came to this life to be as clear, openhearted, and healthy as possible. If you’re reading this, you are luckier than most. Do the best you can for yourself. There’s nothing better than living your best life.