This is an abridged version of the first chapter from my book “The Natural Path” and it is intended to give a decent understanding of the impact we can have on future generations through our own lifestyle choices.
If you find yourself confused by some of the terminologies that is OK. I promise your family doctor didn’t start off knowing all their medical terms. There are free online medical dictionaries if you decide to dive into this topic with lectures on youtube.
Alright, first let’s clarify what the word epigenetics means.
The word can be defined as meaning “above” or “on top of” genetics. This is partially based in Latin and partially based on ego. On top of could be appropriate however “above” is usually how it is interpreted.
The word genetics we know loosely as meaning our DNA. Think of your DNA as being the text in a book. Epigenetics is the changing punctuation, with the environment (stress levels, nutrition, hygiene, ect.) being the potential editor of that punctuation.
So the question becomes how do we influence those editors to make positive changes for ourselves and/or future generations?
Turning different genes on or off does not have inherent good or bad virtues, this is simply because different combinations will produce different results. Ultimately the body is programmed to survive so all you need to do is provide the tools it needs rather than attempting to target specific genes. There may come a time when specific gene therapy could be appropriate in the future.
Genome - The DNA sequence in its totality for a cell or entire organism.
Epigenome - The sum total of epigenetic markers for the DNA sequence. Unlike the underlying DNA sequence, the epigenome is much more variable and most markers will not be directly passed on.
Gene expression - Refers to how much influence an active or “turned on” gene has. Think of it as a volume knob, for example, if a gene expresses more then the volume is turned up and vice versa.
While your grandmother was pregnant with your parent, the gonads (testicles and ovaries), were also growing. So whatever they were exposed to during that pregnancy potentially had an effect on the markers picked up by the future sperm and eggs.
That includes any drugs (prescription or otherwise), how stressed they were, what they ate, and so on.
Then we have the more direct influences such as early nutrition, stress, and medical needs for that specific person.
Does this mean your epigenetic makeup is stuck? Heck no. It can be altered slowly through your physical activity levels, nutrition, stress, and prescriptions, the list seems endless.
Our lifestyle choices can alter long-term health outcomes for ourselves and any children we may have in a very direct manner. Influences at the developmental stages for eggs and sperm can be seen for at least 2 - 3 generations, potentially longer. However, the research is not well developed enough at this point to know for sure how many generations beyond 3.
Interestingly, science is finding that for at least mothers, epigenetic influences can go in reverse as well. During pregnancy, stem cells can transfer from the baby to the mother. Stem cells are generic cells that have not specialized into skin, hair, liver, nerves, ect…. These cells give the opportunity for DNA repair, which is why there is so much research being done on them (PMC2633676, doi: 10.1242/jcs.02332).
At this point in time, we do not have any research showing a similar effect for fathers (sorry guys). However, this research is still in its early stages so it is possible that something will be discovered.
As previously mentioned there are other influences that will change our epigenome over the course of our lives. Nutrition, exercise, drugs regardless of legality, and so on.
Antibiotics are actually a huge factor in changing epigenomes. You are an ecological environment, changing the ecosystem within your gut will change your health for both the short term and the long term. Antibiotics play an important role in health care, but they are a double-edged sword so they should be used with great care. This also applies to antibacterial products we use in our homes.
High levels of stress have been shown to affect gene expression immediately after and long-term stress can influence the brains of future children. Of course, long-term stress is also known to have adverse effects on our health in other ways. This means stress can change epigenetic markers over the course of our lives.
Understanding these basic principles allows each of us to put our lifestyle choices in a functional context.