Whole Life Magazine

December 2013/January 2014

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DON'T BLAME YOUR GENES By Mary Budinger Classic wisdom tells us we're stuck with the genes we get from our parents, but epigenetic research shows we can change them—for better or for worse O ur genes are our destiny, at least according to conventional wisdom. Whatever cards Mother Nature dealt us—whether good or bad—are ours for life. Wrong. Hit the reset button. Most of the time, it's epigenetics that decides our destiny, and even if we have a "bad" gene, that's only half the story. We inherit two of every gene—one from our mother, one from our father—and hopefully at least one in each of these pairs is a "good" gene, which is sufficient for us to live healthy, mostly disease-free lives. The problem comes when we lose or inactivate that good gene that is functioning normally. This is the relatively new science of epigenetics. Our genes are surrounded by a network of chemical messengers that affect what the gene does. And those chemical messengers—collectively known as the epigenome—are affected by what we eat, environmental toxins we're exposed to, stress levels and other lifestyle factors. Take two identical twins: they have the exact same genes because they came from the same egg, but sometimes one sibling grows up to have diabetes or cancer and the other does not. How does that happen? Epigenetics trumps genetics. Geneticist Randy Jirtle, Ph.D., devised a landmark experiment with two mice that carry the Agouti gene—a "bad" gene that gives mice yellow-colored fur and makes them prone to obesity, diabetes and cancer. The offspring of Agouti mice are always identical to the parents—yellow, obese and susceptible to life-shortening diseases. But by feeding the mothers a different diet, Dr. Jirtle got a very different result in their offspring. This photo on this page shows two genetically identical mice that carry the Agouti gene. Their mothers, while pregnant, were both fed a diet laced with endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA). However, the diet of the mother of the mouse on the right was supplemented 26 wholelifetimesmagazine.com WLT-DEC-JAN-11-24-10pm.indd 26 with choline, folic acid, betaine and vitamin B12. The end result: The yellow daughter on the left, the one with the mother that did not have a supplemented diet, is obese and prone to disease. The brown daughter on the right is not diabetic, and is smaller, fitter, leaner and healthier. The nutrients fed to the mother of the healthier brown mouse can attach to a gene and turn it off, virtually erasing the effects of the Agouti gene. Ajay Goel, Ph.D., director of epigenetics and cancer prevention at the Baylor Research Institute in Texas, explains: "[There are] countless suppressor and activator areas that determine how our genes are expressed. We are finding that these gene-modifying areas are turned off or on by environmental influences such as diet, exercise, hormones, chemicals, toxins and probably other factors unknown to us. Twenty years ago, if you'd said cancer is a hereditary disease, everyone would have agreed. But we know now that the hereditary predisposition for cancer is much less than 5 percent, so most cancers are epigenetically driven," indicating that our health choices are usually more relevant than inherited genes in this instance. Sometimes the genes we inherit are not a gene dysfunction in and of themselves, but can affect the way our bodies respond to certain stimuli. For example, think about the inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the genes that are linked to risk of breast and ovarian cancer. They make radiation-associated breast cancer more likely because the mutations mean your body can't readily repair DNA breaks caused by exposure to radiation. If you have those genes, you are more likely to develop breast cancer, but then again, not every recipient does. What we know about epigenetics tells us you probably want to stay away from mammograms, airport scanners and other forms of radiation that would encourage those genes to express badly. The Paleo diet conversation likes to talk about human gene changes taking 10,000 years or more, but epigenetic Photo: Randy Jirtle 11/24/13 10:34 PM

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