What if we told you that what you ate today could affect the health of your great grandchildren?
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the increased diagnoses of diseases like diabetes, cancer, auto-immune disorders, and infertility over the past ten to twenty years. We’ve discussed how diet may be a huge factor in the overall health of society. But there’s a particular branch of science that deals with how diseases may be propagated and passed down through generations.
Epigenetics is the study of what happens to the expression of a person’s genes over the course of his or her life, and if and how those changes get passed down.
It turns out that what your grandmother ate before she became pregnant with your mother may have had an impact on how healthy you are today.
What is epigenetics?
Let’s start with a simple break down of genetics:
Each cell in your body contains DNA, which is made up of genes that tell your cells how to make proteins.
Epigenetics controls how genes are read by cells. In other words, the epigenome is like a set of instructions that tell your cells how to read DNA. The epigenome tells each cell in your body whether or not to express certain genes; it doesn’t change your DNA, just how your genes are expressed in different cells. That’s why we can have so many different cells with different functions in our bodies—the epigenome tells some cells to be skin cells, others to be brain cells, still others to be muscle cells by expressing the right genes.
Why should we care?
It turns out that while the genome stays the same over the course of a person’s life, the epigenetic “tags” that tell your cells which genes to express can change throughout your lifetime. And those changes are based on environmental factors. For example, scientists are finding out that a bad diet can lead the epigenome to give the wrong instructions—or the wrong “tags”—to cells. Bad instructions cause the cells to become abnormal, and that abnormality can lead to disease.
What is more, scientists are learning that some of the “epigenetic tags” created in a person’s lifetime may get passed down from one generation to the next. In other words, the bad instructions created by a person’s environment (her eating habits, exercise habits, lifestyle etc.) may be hereditary.
Remember when we said that what your grandmother ate may have affected your health? There’s a very specific reason for this. You were formed from an embryo that grew from your mother’s egg and your father’s sperm. While a man’s sperm get produced throughout his lifetime, a woman is born with all of the eggs her body will ever produce. That means that her eggs are formed while she is in utero—inside her mother’s body. In other words, the egg that created you was formed inside your grandmother’s body. Therefore, the inherited epigenetic tags you were born with not only came from your mother and father; they are also a result of your grandmother’s diet and lifestyle, while her body nurtured the egg that formed you.
When we look at the rise of diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders in our society, the facts revealed by epigenetics become more disturbing. The mid-twentieth century saw the mass introduction of processed foods into the world’s diet. That means that many of our grandparents and parents were among the first generations to eat processed foods. With the knowledge that comes from epigenetics, and with what we are now learning about the dangers of processed meats and artificial ingredients, is it any wonder that so many more people are suffering from these diseases? This TED talk we posted on our Facebook page reveals some of these startling statistics.
All of this doesn’t mean that we should blame our grandmothers for our health disorders. They, like many of us, had no idea about the dangers of processed foods or the power of epigenetics.
But the news isn’t all bad. The fact that we can alter our genes for the worse also means we can alter them for the better. Even if you’ve inherited bad “tags,” it’s not as though you are stuck with them. You may only need to be more proactive in how you combat those health risks. Clean eating, exercise, and reducing stress are the first steps to a healthy lifestyle.
If anything, epigenetics only drives home the need for a healthy lifestyle, not just for ourselves, but for our children and our grandchildren. Let’s be the generation that stops the cycle of inherited diseases and that, instead, passes on the “instructions” for healthier bodies.
- Epigenetics. YouTube.com
- A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Beginners whatisepigenetics.com
- Processed Foods: A 2 Million Year History. Scientific America
- Epigenetic Influences and Diseases. nature.com
- The Epidemic of Chronic Disease and Understanding Epigenetics. YouTube.com/TEDx Talks