Your Genes are Not Your Destiny: The Promise of Epigenetics

April 1, 2014 (Updated: February 6, 2019)
Lily Moran

There is an exciting medical revolution underway. Many experts consider it the single greatest scientific discovery of the last century, one that could have a profound effect on your health in the near future. An emerging science known as epigenetics is rapidly changing the face of medicine. The good news? Your genes are not your destiny!

What is epigenetics? The word simply means “above genes,” but   not in the physical sense. The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds that influence and direct the actions of your own DNA.  These chemical compounds modify, or mark, the DNA in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it and when to do it. So in a sense, the epigenome is the “boss” of the majority of your genes.

In practice, epigenetics is the study of gene modification that can occur without DNA involvement. In other words, your DNA is permanent. But the epigenetic layer of your genes can be altered – favorably or unfavorably – by your behavior and lifestyle. In fact, up to 70 percent of your epigenetic layer can be affected by what you eat, your exercise habits, the vitamins and supplements you take, and other factors that are completely within your own control.

Let’s look at an example. Arthur (not his real name) was concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease. His mother had died from complications due to Alzheimer’s, and he wanted to know if there was anything he could do to prevent or delay development of the disease.

What’s In Your Genes?

There is a gene that appears to increase an individual’s risk for Alzheimer’s. It is known as APOE (apolipoprotein E) and has several variants that can complicate matters since they play important roles in how this gene is expressed. However, the first thing Arthur learned is that simply having the APOE gene does not mean that he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Here’s why: Genes are essentially blueprints that determine your individual traits and characteristics, such as eye and hair color, as well as your vulnerability to diseases. Genes direct how the cells in your body grow and function, primarily by influencing your cells’ protein production. Your genes come from your parents at conception, half from your mother, half from your father.

Thirty percent of your genes are fixed and cannot be changed. For example, an individual who has genes for red hair, freckles, and blue eyes doesn’t have much choice in the matter, because those factors come from fixed genes. But what about the remaining 70 percent of the genes that are not fixed? That’s the vast majority of your genes, and science is discovering that those are flexible enough to be switched on or off. So even if both parents had heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, or another chronic ailment, you are not doomed. In Arthur’s case, genetic testing can tell us whether or not he has the gene for Alzheimer’s, as well as any variants that may be present. Depending on the outcome of the genetic tests, Arthur can then follow a plan to reduce the likelihood that he will develop the disease.

Genetic testing is fairly new. The federal government’s Human Genome Project, created to map and understand all genes in humans, was only completed in 2003, and there is still a great deal of continuing research going on. But right now you can at least take the necessary steps to reduce your risk of activating genes that could create health issues. You can, for example, have your genes tested to determine your vulnerability to various diseases. But then what?

Let’s use Arthur’s case as an example. Gene testing showed that he did, indeed, have the APOE gene that could result in Alzheimer’s. But since Arthur was only in his mid-50s, he still had time to get ahead of the situation. Because genes are not the sole reason that you get a disease, Arthur could take steps to help protect himself.

Where to start? A lifestyle to avoid unhealthy gene activation through things such as eating a low-nutrition diet of fast and processed foods, not getting sufficient sleep or clean, filtered water, lack of exercise, living with high levels of unmanaged stress, and not taking appropriate supplements.

In addition, Arthur had a number of other steps he could take to prevent or delay the development of Alzheimer’s. Since the science of epigenetics is still in its infancy, and we have a lot to learn, it’s not possible to provide strict guidelines or guarantee effectiveness yet. But these suggestions are based on what we currently know. Here are six recommendations for keeping your genes healthy and happy.

Manage blood sugar: Nearly a decade ago, researchers made an astonishing discovery. They found that the brain, which produces its own insulin, can develop diabetes. Like Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, the brain version – sometimes called Type 3 – also involves insulin resistance or an insufficient supply of insulin. Since the brain uses insulin to form memories, an interruption in the insulin supply can interfere with your memory. Not surprisingly, individuals with Type 3 diabetes are likely to have the typical tangles of brain plaques that are found in Alzheimer’s patients.

Brain-friendly blood sugar levels are tied to your diet, so first of all, follow my recommendations for a nutritious, whole food diet. You should include plenty of foods rich in substances known as polyphenols. These powerful antioxidants combat the damage caused by rogue molecules known as free radicals that contribute to aging and disease. Some foods that are good sources of polyphenols include green and black teas, all types of berries, filtered coffee (please see below for more details), flaxseed meal, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and red wine, in moderation.

Second, if you’ve been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, look into supplements designed to manage blood sugar levels. Arthur found that simply taking supplements to target blood sugar was helpful in reducing his afternoon drowsiness. “Now I don’t have to nap every afternoon,” he said. “And that means I get a lot more done in the daytime and sleep better at night!”

One last suggestion: Look for a product containing berberine. Berberine is a substance extracted from several different types of plants that have been used to treat diabetes in natural medicine. Studies have shown that berberine can regulate glucose metabolism, as well as fight inflammation, and reduce cholesterol and blood fats.

Research shows that berberine works to improve biomarkers of type 2 diabetes. Berberine is also excellent if you have pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome, since it can help reduce the risk of developing the disease. It has the added advantage of possibly reducing body fat, something that pharmaceuticals can’t claim.

Drink coffee: A growing body of research shows that individuals who drink coffee or espresso may be gaining protection against Alzheimer’s. Obviously, this recommendation is not for everyone. In situations where individuals are concerned about developing Alzheimer’s, however, there is research showing that the high levels of caffeine in coffee and espresso can not only provide a morning boost, but also enhance brain functions.

On the downside, coffee acts as a diuretic, removing water from the body, so be sure to drink plenty of fresh, filtered water throughout the day to prevent dehydration.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

One caution: Please purchase organic coffee. Ordinary coffee is grown with dozens of chemicals, including unhealthy pesticides and herbicides. If you’re a coffee lover, do yourself a favor and skip the chemicals, even if it means paying a slightly higher price.

Avoid copper and other heavy metals: Starting sometime in the 1950s, copper plumbing became popular in homes. As a result, many of the Baby Boomers grew up with copper in their drinking and bath water. While we need some copper, many health experts are concerned that an overload can contribute to Alzheimer’s.

This is a tricky situation. On the one hand, you can replace copper pipes, but that’s a very expensive proposition. Furthermore, doing that these days means you’ll most likely be getting PVC pipes, which are essentially plastic and carry health risks of their own.

There is a less expensive alternative than re-plumbing your entire house — purchase a high-quality water filter that removes copper and all heavy metals from your drinking water. You may also want a shower filter that’s capable of removing copper, other heavy metals, and chlorine from your bath water, so you’re not exposing your body to these substances (and yes, they can be absorbed through the skin). By doing so, you’re reducing the likelihood of tipping the scales toward Alzheimer’s or another neurodegenerative disease.

Feed your brain: A great deal of the brain is made up of fat, in particular, two primary fatty acids – arachidonic acid (AA) and the beneficial omega-3 known as DHA or docosahexaenoic acid. Normally, arachidonic acid is metabolized into several other substances, including inflammation-promoting compounds known as eicosanoids. When your body has an insufficient supply of omega-3s to neutralize the eicosanoids, levels of DHA drop, leaving your brain vulnerable to inflammation. This is exactly what occurs in people with neurodegenerative diseases – excessive brain inflammation from too many eicosanoids and too little DHA.

Correcting the situation and reducing inflammation is fairly simple, though. Just increase your intake of EFAs – and DHA in particular – and lower your intake of omega-6s, the commercial vegetable-oil fats found in so many fast and processed foods. The recommend dose is 3 grams (3,000 mg) daily with more DHA (for brain health) than EPA (for general inflammation).

In addition, recent studies have shown that specific supplements have impressive abilities when it comes to Alzheimer’s prevention. For example, new research shows that curcumin, an extract of the herb turmeric, inhibits the formation of brain-damaging substances linked to Alzheimer’s. Not surprisingly, countries like India, where turmeric is an everyday ingredient in food, have some of the lowest levels of Alzheimer’s in the world. Take 500 mg of curcumin one to three times daily, preferably with food.

Learn something new: Have you always wanted to speak Italian? Play the piano? Know more about history? Now’s the time to explore new territory. We tend to think of learning as an activity for children or young people, but science has discovered that making learning a lifelong activity is one of the best ways to protect your brain and epigenome from the ravages of aging. Scientists call this “cognitive training.”

There are many ways to stimulate your brain. You can, for example, play complex games, like bridge or chess. Or you might prefer word puzzles or similar challenges. Even video games have been shown to benefit the brain. If you have a smart phone, check out the free and low-cost game apps that you can play while waiting in line or whenever you have a few minutes to spare.

Making time during each day to do something mentally stimulating pays off. Arthur, for example, found that he enjoyed learning woodworking and carpentry skills to build birdhouses that he began selling online. “I design different houses for different types of birds,” he explained, “so every day I’m learning something new. It’s nice to have an extra source of income. But I’m really doing it to keep my brain from stagnating. And I think it’s working!”

Manage stress:  Chronic, unmanaged stress is not your friend. So if you’re a worrywart or feel anxious much of the time, find a stress management technique that works for you. Exercise is one of the best, and as a bonus, physical activity has outstanding benefits for your brain, in terms of enhanced circulation and more oxygen. Meditation is another excellent stress reliever. If you’re interested in trying it, Mindfulness Meditation is an easy-to-learn method that can be done anywhere. Just put the words “mindfulness meditation” in your favorite search engine, and you’ll get thousands of helpful links to instructions and videos.

Stress is one of the elements that can alter your epigenome and create health problems, especially in the brain. Furthermore, ongoing stress harms your health in many ways. For example, stressful events put your immune system on hold so that energy can be re-routed to organs that help you escape a threat (the fight or flight mechanism at work). This makes you more vulnerable to colds, flu, and a long list of other ailments. And stress affects your heart, raises blood pressure, and can interfere with digestion, among other things.

Stress also has a dramatic effect on your memory, so its effects on the brain are profound. And these days, chronic stress is simply a fact of life for many people. As a result, learning meditation can benefit most people who are concerned about maintaining a healthy brain.

Since the science of epigenetics is still developing, we all have a lot to learn about how our choices affect our genes. The field is fairly complex, but I’ll be returning to the topic from time to time with updates and additional information. For the time being, just remember that the whole point is to prevent your genes from going awry and creating a disease state. We’re learning that lifestyle plays a huge role in gene expression, so do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep reading health news.

Finally, if you’re interested in having your own genes screened, please do your homework. For example, be aware that there is a great deal of variation in companies offering genetic screening services. The area is not regulated by the federal government, so your best choices are firms that can prove they are certified by Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) or by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Also, be aware that while genetic screening is fairly simple, requiring only a small blood or saliva sample, it is not inexpensive. Although some services perform limited testing for a few hundred dollars, a complete genetic screening can cost $1,000 or more, and is rarely covered by insurance. Please don’t make a hasty decision when choosing a genetic screening service. Ask plenty of questions, and please remember that the findings are not fixed in stone.

As I hope you’ve seen in this newsletter, epigenetics and the ability to influence your own gene expression is a tremendous opportunity for us all to become healthier than ever!  As Arthur said, “I thought I didn’t want to know if I had the gene for Alzheimer’s. But now that I’ve been tested and know I have a predisposition toward it, at least I can take control of the situation and do something about it, instead of waiting and worrying. Whatever happens, I’ll know I’ve done everything I could to avoid it. And I can live with that.”

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