The science of epigenetics is possibly the most important medical breakthrough in years, providing powerful new information on how to lose weight and prevent chronic illness. Epigenetics explores how genes, carried in the DNA, express their information. It is such a dynamic field that over 16,000 scientific articles are published every year and many academic medical institutions have established departments of epigenetics. Andrew Feinberg from Johns Hopkins University Center for Epigenetics wrote an article in JAMA in 2008 calling epigenetics the epicenter of modern medicine.
Why is epigenetics so revolutionary? In the past it was thought that whatever was inherited through the genes and DNA was fixed and unchangeable, our biological destiny written in the double helix of our DNA. One of the first clues that this was not so, came from the world of honeybees. Scientists discovered that bees fed different foods as larvae became either workers or queen bees despite the exact same genetics. The differing diets of the larvae modified how their genes were expressed through a process called methylation, which influences the structures around the genes and whether genes are turned on or off.
In humans, the greatest influence on methylation, as well as other epigenetic processes (such as histone modification), is diet as well. What we eat, even what your mother consumed before you were conceived, can influence your gene expression and biological destiny. Obesity, and the risks of developing chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all a result of epigenetic phenomena and explains why the offspring of overweight mothers (and fathers) have a greater risk of diabetes and obesity.
The greatest positive influence on epigenetic expression appears to be from what are termed bioactive foods. This includes broccoli and other crucifers, soy, turmeric and other spices, garlic, green tea and folate rich foods such as green leafy vegetables. Remarkably, even exercise and how stress is handled can influence gene expression as well.
However, there are also many disruptive influences on epigenetic gene expression leading to a host of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, depression and obesity. These include exposure to environmental toxins such as BPA, PCB’s, phthalates and heavy metals (especially lead and mercury). The interplay between intake of bioactive foods, a healthy diet, managing stress, adequate exercise and the amount of toxin exposure can determine so much about a person’s future health. I feel that epigenetic mechanisms are the most important focus in staying healthy.
Though there are currently no cost-effective tests to measure epigenetic processes (they do exist in research centers), we can test for abnormal gene patterns (called SNPs), levels of metabolites, toxins and other markers that influence the health of the epigenome. This should be part of everyone’s health assessment.