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Scientists are looking into epigenetics, a promising new way to break free of our genetic heritage.
It is often said that you are what you eat. That’s true, to a point, but you are so much more than that! You are also what your mother ate, and possibly what your grandparents ate. You are your environment. You are how you were nurtured and loved, and you are where you live. You are the way you think. The you that you become is regulated by your epigenetics.
Science now tells us that epigenetics play a key role in everything about us, from the way that we handle stress, to the chronic illnesses we get, including diabetes and neurodevelopmental disorders. No longer can we conclude that we’re trapped within the confines of our genetics. Through epigenetics, we have the ability to control or regulate how our genes express themselves.
What Are Epigenetics?
The root epi means “on top of.” Epigenetics are the biological mechanisms that lie overtop of our genomes. They are responsible for activating or deactivating different characteristics or expressions of our genes, without changing the actual DNA structure. In other words, they determine which genetic characteristics will—or won’t—develop, and to what degree. Take, for example, a caterpillar that changes into a butterfly. It is still the same species, with the same DNA. The outward expression of that DNA, however, changes over time, undergoing a metamorphosis into a beautiful expression of life.
Epigenetics are known to be affected by exposure to toxins and synthetic compounds, environment, nutrients, behavior, and physical, chemical and emotional stress. The exposure triggers a chemical change in the body or brain, which leads to a release of a group of molecules, called methyl groups. The addition (or a loss) of a methyl group changes the direction of gene expression. It is thought that most of these changes, which set the stage for an adult’s susceptibility to diseases and behavioral attitudes, occur either during embryonic and fetal development, or shortly after birth. These early epigenetic changes can lie dormant for years, and result in cancer or various other diseases later in life. Or, they can express themselves early in life as neurodevelopmental disorders.
Good News, Bad News
Bad news first: Epigenetic changes can be passed from generation to generation. This could explain the ever-increasing rates of many disorders and diseases in the United States today. It is thought that in the U.S., one out of six children has some form of neurodevelopmental disorder or delay, such as a learning disorder, hyperactivity or spectrum autism. Diabetes rates are said to be climbing to 11.3 percent of American adults, or about 26 million Americans. If current trends continue, 15 percent of American adults will be living with diabetes by the end of 2015. Cancer, leukemia and other such diseases are also on the rise.
Now the good news: Scientists believe that the methylation process responsible for these epigenetic changes is reversible. Unlike a permanent defect in the gene itself, these epigenetic changes can be undone through various means, changing our gene expression—at least to a degree that will benefit our mental, physical and emotional health. Not only can we change our own gene expression, but we can start to turn the tide for future generations by not handing down our negative epigenetic changes.
The science of epigenetics is helping to bring together the beliefs of Western and holistic medicine. It is helping many to understand the mind, body and spirit of healing. In order to slow the increase in diseases and disorders, we must each look at different factors in our own lives. By taking responsibility for our own health and well-being, we can protect future generations, as well.