Epigenetics: A New Perspective in the Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Many of us as kids were often told by our moms “we are what we eat.” However, in an ironic twist we are now learning from the study of epigenetics that to some degree we are what our mom ate when she was pregnant.

What is Epigenetics? 

To help you understand this further let me first briefly explain epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how life experience cause changes within our genes. We are all born with the DNA that stays with us our entire life, but our life experiences, mental health, physical activity, even what we eat, can have a profound effect on our health throughout our life. It can even effect our children’s lives. Through epigenetics, we are learning the factors that contribute to these changes and attempting to forecast the impact – positive or negative – they have in our lives.

An Epigenetics Example 

Imagine a train starting out down a track and it gets to a “fork” in the tracks. Depending upon how the switch is thrown the train can go on three separate tracks in different directions. In this example what will determine how the switch is thrown is the environment the train is in at that time.
  •  If it’s raining, the program sends it on the left track; 
  •  If it’s snowing it goes on the middle track; 
  •  If it’s sunny it goes on the far right track. 
If each track was designed and built to be better suited for the specific weather condition then this program maximizes the safety of the train by pairing the best track per the weather for the train. Essentially this is what happens at a molecular level to our genes at certain critical times of our lives, some of them being early in development. 

What Does Epigeneics Mean in our Daily Life?

 I find the human body fascinating and complicated, but it makes sense that in order to enhance survival there would be a mechanism of how the expression of genes could be changed based upon environmental clues. There are certain “stressors” like poor nutrition, emotional stress, and chemical toxins that tell the body the environment is not optimal and in turn the body puts a sign on the DNA that causes genes to be read differently than they otherwise would. When the expression of a gene is changed the affect or strength of that gene is changed and as a result our body functions differently. What is interesting is that the change in how the gene is read is not short term, and has been found to last not only for the person’s lifetime but their children’s genes will also be expressed in a similar pattern changing how their body works as well. Consider the train example again: once the switch is thrown and you are on one of the three tracks, you have no choice but to stay on that track for a very long time. Specifically, the initial studies in epigenetics have shown that in critical developmental times like fetal development and early childhood, the stressors mentioned above have led to an increase in obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease in later adult life.

Epigenetics Gives you More Control Over Your “Life Track” 

Now I know this may seem like we have less control over our future health than we initially thought, but as I mentioned before, the human body is amazing and has many ways to adapt to its environment. Since we never know when our genetic train is going to come to a fork in the tracks, we need to make sure we are living healthy as often as possible to make sure that we stay on or are switched to the “healthy track.” In fact, I just attended a lecture on aging where it was suggested that the role our DNA has in determining our longevity may only be about 15% compared to 85% related to environmental factors affecting epigenetics. Shifting the pendulum from nature to nurture through epigenetics really gives us more control over our destiny and our family’s destiny. Certainly changing the family’s lifestyle is quicker and easier than waiting for a mutation in our DNA that will change our health. Epigenetics is one of just many concepts that we are learning about to understand how our body adapts to changes, but it is a great example of how important it is to treat our body well and even more important to make sure our children and expectant moms are living life as healthy as possible. I hope this motivates us all as a country to think about creating a culture of health for our families. If our school systems insist on feeding our kids fried foods and sweets let’s send them with a healthy lunch and work in our community to change the nutrition of the school lunches and breakfast. We are all connected and anyone’s poor health affects us all so let's work together to change the “healthculture” of our country so we can all be healthier and happier.

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