Epigenetics and Nutrition – A Brief Overview
By: Cat Aulakh, Genomic Health Practitioner
Epigenetics is part of the field of genetics that deals with the factors that influence gene expression.
Simply put – think of the gene as a gun and the modifications are the trigger, or those factors that switch the gene on and off like a light switch.
We all have heritable traits in our DNA. The epigenetic modifications prevent or allow a gene to make protein. The change is not in the DNA but in the new traits being passed on by epigenetic means.
For example, it is established through many studies that if you smoke and over-eat you will most certainly trigger certain genes for obesity and cardiovascular risk. Other links of genetic expression like asthma in infants can be traced to maternal anxiety and diet during pregnancy.
Are these changes permanent? These genetic responses are environmental stressors. In many cases, if the stressor is removed the epigenetic “marks” will fade with time and the DNA code will revert itself.
Nutrition is one area of epigenetics with profound impact on health and science globally.
Science is shedding light on the prominent role of food in PREVENTING disease, and using this as a stepping stone for overall lifestyle guidelines including the trans-generational impact of epigenetics on many cultures around the globe. The invasion of our WESTERN DIET on many cultures around the world is responsible for the rise in global obesity. This is a fact. This is epigenetics at work.
Genotype: Influenced by: epigenetics, culture, lifestyle = *Phenotype
*Your observable traits
Our genes do not determine our destiny just as our genetic influences can be modified at any time.
Nutrition can alter the epigenetic state of the genome leading to dramatic deprogramming or reprogramming of large numbers of genes in metabolic pathways and physiological systems.
This can have a great affect on the incidence of late-stage, long-latency, diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and some cancers.
Nutritional intervention is a possible way to “reprogram” the epigenome to promote health and prevent disease. It gives new life to the saying, “You are what you eat.”
How does one take advantage of epigenetics?
There are a lot of companies offering genetic tests like 23 and Me, and others testing for key epigenetic processes like Methylation (which can be the topic of several articles). Like everything, these tests should come with a “buyer” beware sticker. There are a lot of tests that are beneficial and credible out there. You need to work with a Practitioner who is trained in genetics and hopefully epigenetics for these to be of use for you and/or your family members and to help him or her in improving your health picture.
Too often I have people coming to see me who have done an online DNA test and consulted Dr. Google. They felt they were making the first step to regaining their health, as their primary care physician simply kept prescribing medication or did not have time to listen to them, but ultimately they instead were led to many sites offering supplements to fix or prevent their genetic traits from expressing.
Nothing is that easy. It is sad to see how a pharmaceutical pill and supplement are seen and marketed the same way now.
As we learned earlier, several factors trigger a gene expression. So, no one supplement or supplements is the answer we hope for. Nutrition, life-style intervention, and sometimes even a career-change can be the answer for resetting your genetic pathway. I have even experienced patients who exercise 5 days a week, only to learn genetically that their body does not respond to that type of exercise in a positive way, and instead we focus on other environmental triggers like nutrition, mental well-being and a different approach to fitness to help them obtain optimal wellness.
Epigenetics is the future model of our healthcare system.
It is an individual science – and there are many exciting wearables, tests, and programs being developed as we speak.
In my own practice, we upgrade and change tests monthly as new research and data is available.
And we are only at the start of this exciting time…
A few years ago the healthcare system was told to listen to the patient. Now, the patient and practitioner, together, must listen to his or her body.
These are very exciting times indeed.
About The Author:
Cat Aulakh, Genomic Health Practitioner
Cat has been studying and practicing alternative medicine for 5 years. She has studied functional medicine and nutrition at Cornell University, and continues many ongoing programs including a recent degree in biotechnology and genetics at MIT. She has trained with world-renowned doctors, healers, and educators in a variety of disciplines throughout the world in various disciplines. Cat believes that in order to best help a patient one must never stop their education and dedicate countless hours a week to staying up-to-date on research and development.
She practices in Toronto, Canada and consults throughout North America.