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Improving epigenetic expression through diet and lifestyle practices

The power of WHY

For any of you who have, or have had little kids, you will know that the question “why” can become very tiresome. I remember one of my kids was in the habit of asking ‘why’, even before I finished responding to the previous question.

  • Why is the sun yellow?
  • Why is the sky blue?
  • Why do birds sing?
  • Why are there rainbows?
  • Why does it rain?
  • Why…..?  Why….? Why….?

Research suggests children aged 4 on average ask the ‘why’ question up to 73 times per day. Nice to know my 4-year-old is ‘above average’.

It's not only kids who ask WHY

Last week my youngest son turned 15. It feels like an anniversary for me too. 15 years ago, around the time he was born, my own personal journey into nutrition and genetics started. It started with asking WHY. One of my older children experienced quite significant health challenges. I wasn’t happy with simply receiving an explanation of WHAT – ie. the medical diagnosis. I wanted to know WHY. The medications recommended for his condition weren’t successful in treating the symptoms. In addition, there were numerous unpleasant side effects. I figured if I understood WHY then there may be something concrete that I could do to help and make a difference.

The deep dive

I spent many months diving into understanding the biochemistry of neurotransmitters. Additionally, I read a number of books and spent hours on the internet trying to figure it out. This gave me lots of ‘leads’, but it would take me several more years to unravel what was actually going on. All the while I was going through my own health challenges. The challenges we were both experiencing lead me to questions that didn’t have readily available answers back in 2003. These answers are, fortunately, more accessible in 2019.

The clues in my family tree

One of the answers to my WHY question lays in my family tree. There were many examples in my paternal family tree of people experiencing health challenges. I noticed these especially in the area of mental health and addiction. This leads me to the work of some ground-breaking Doctors who were studying genetics, and its impact on mental health. My kid’s challenges were not specifically in the area of mental health but were neurological. Though not the same, I figured they were both connected to the brain, giving me an area to keep researching. What I discovered is that our genetics plays a role in determining where our health Achilles heel lies. What I also found out is that it is not the only determining factor?

There are, of course, diseases that are 100% affected by genetics. Known as Mendelian inheritance diseases, these are single gene disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease. Other conditions can be from changes in the number of chromosomes, such as in Down’s Syndrome. These types of genetic changes do not explain all disease though. Modern research kicked off by the Human Genome Project, suggests many modern health challenges have their origin in epigenetic expression. The interplay between epigenetic expression and our genetic Achilles heel’s can leave the body’s self-healing mechanisms not functioning as well as hoped. This leads to the signs and symptoms we experience as disease.

The genetic lottery

We can’t control the genes we receive (thanks Mum and Dad!). Regardless of the genes we are born with, there are still factors that we can control. The choices we make on a day to day basis can impact pieces of genetic code. This is known as epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modifications in gene expression.

Factors that influence epigenetic expression

There are many factors that play a contributing role in epigenetic expression. Dietary choices and the foods we eat have an impact, but so too does:

– the air that we breathe
– the water we drink
– our exposure to mutagenic and carcinogenic by-products
– the level of exercise we engage in – whether this be too little or too much
– whether we are experiencing nutrient deficiencies due to our diet
– the electromagnetic fields we are exposed to
– our mindset
– whether we get enough sleep
– our life experiences and past trauma’s
– the way we handle the stress we experience in our lives
– our exposure to pesticides
– our exposure to pathogens
– the composition of our microbiota

The power that comes from WHY

The great thing about understanding the WHY is that it provides us with knowledge. It can highlight areas in our lives where we can make changes. For me and my family, we needed to work on factors that contributed to epigenetic expression. We wanted our good genes to be working well, while also minimising the impact some of our more ‘dodgy’ genes could play in our health.

The study of epigenetics and nutrigenomics (the study of nutrients, and their effect on genetic expression) are still in their early days, but research already carried out helps us understand the impact diet and lifestyle have on our genes at an epigenetic level.

Genetic testing

If we want to know more about our genetic makeup, there are some good tools available now. The cost of carrying out testing has decreased over the past 10 years and is now available to the general public. This helps us understand what our genetic code is.

What genetic testing does not do is help us understand the way our genetics are expressing in our bodies, in real time. So, I compare genetic testing to giving us a birds-eye view of a road map, without telling us where we are right now. In my practice, I see genetic testing true but partial in terms of the information we can gather. It gives us an understanding of our genetic Achilles heel(s) but I find more information is required.

I like to run a real-time urinary Organic Acid Test (called an OAT test) for my clients. This helps me to get a feel for what is happening in the here and now. The OAT tests for levels of metabolites produced in various biochemical processes in the body. It gives us insights into energy production, detoxification, neurotransmitter breakdown and intestinal dysbiosis. It can also shed light on vitamin and mineral deficiencies and fatty acid metabolism.

Genetic SNP's

As human beings, we have over 23,000 genes. Science is still at the cutting edge when it comes to understanding the impact many of these genes have on our health. There is only a small number that have sufficient research to give us evidence-based data on how they impact health. We have to remember that having a certain code in one of our genes does not mean it is expressing in a way that is contributing to health challenges.

Let me explain. Changes in the genetic code, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP’s) can have the effect of altering the function of specific enzymes in the body, making them either more or less active. It is these responses that can contribute to health challenges. For example, a certain SNP may make you more effective at converting a vitamin into its needed active form in the body, so this SNP is considered highly beneficial. But, just having a certain SNP does not mean they are ‘on’ and doing their job well. You may have another SNP that has the opposite job and down-regulates certain functions. This can lead to a net neutral benefit. That is where tests like the OAT can help. They actually show us how various pathways in the body are functioning.

There are some SNP changes that have been well researched that highlight how epigenetic changes impact health. Let me share a few examples with you.

MTHFR C677T

This is one of a group of SNP’s that are involved in the methylation cycle. This cycle is an important pathway in the body, providing methyl groups that are required for over 200 functions in the body. When there are insufficient methyl’s available, due to the poor functioning of the methylation cycle, there can be flow-on effects. These downstream effects can occur in folate metabolism, antioxidant production, detoxification processes, neurotransmitter production, cellular clean-up, cellular repair, energy production, immune system function and inflammation.

COMT

This gene determines how we process various compounds in the body, such as oestrogen, and some of the neurotransmitters such as dopamine, adrenalin and noradrenalin. If we have SNP’s in COMT it can either speed up or slow down the rate we process hormones, the stress neurotransmitters, and the stress hormones. If we have SNP’s that lead COMT to run less efficiently, some of these compounds can stay in our body longer than they typically would. In the case of adrenalin, if it is hanging around longer than is useful, it can lead to a variety of physiological and psychological effects such as workaholism, difficulty relaxing, intensity and irritability.

If we have SNP’s in COMT that lead it to run more efficiently we can process through these compounds more rapidly, which can leave us a little too chilled out. This can have an impact on getting things done, as it can show up as difficulty paying attention, lack of enthusiasm, or lack of excitement.

NOS3

This gene influences the production of nitric oxide, which is important to keep the heart and circulatory systems healthy. If you have SNP’s that affect the function of this gene, you may have trouble producing sufficient nitric oxide, leading to blood vessels not dilating sufficiently, and platelets becoming stickier than they typically would be. Both these factors can contribute to a propensity for blood clots. For clients with a family history of strokes, atherosclerosis, heart attacks and high blood pressure, being aware of having SNP’s in NOS3 will be important.

It's not a done deal

Remember that these examples are only 3 genetic SNP’s out of 23,000 that I have used to explain the way genetics can impact our health. Our genes all work in conjunction with one another. We may have one that speeds certain processes up, and another that slows the same process down, leading to a net result of normal functionality. It is very complicated, and as stated before, researchers are only beginning to understand the interplay between all these factors. This is why I like to look at the here and now with Urinary Organic Acid Test, where possible.

Understanding the role epigenetics plays in our health gives us an area where we can take back control. We can make a difference in our health, and give our genes the best shot at functioning at their best. How? You guessed it. It all comes back to diet and lifestyle.

7 tips for improving genetic expression

  1. Clean up your diet. Eat organic where you can. The Environmental Working Group in the USA has produced a list of their clean fifteen and dirty dozen foods. These lists give recommendations of which food we can eat conventionally, due to minimal pesticide usage, and the dozen that are best sourced organically. There isn’t a similar list in Australia, but these are useful guides to help us know which foods are most likely to be heavily sprayed. Eating clean also involves eliminating processed foods, and eating a plant-based whole food diet. Many people comment to me that eating ‘healthy’ is expensive. I have a post sharing ways to eat better, without breaking the bank that you might like to take a look at.
  2. Pay particular attention to meal timing, allowing at least a 12-hour fasting window between dinner and breakfast. This can substantially ramp up the process of autophagy. Autophagy is the cellular clean-up process our bodies undertake when in a fasted state. Cleaning up the environment our genes exist in, leads to more beneficial epigenetic expression.
  3. Remove foods that may be causing inflammation. These foods will likely be different for everyone, but there are a few culprits that come up again and again for my clients. They are gluten, dairy and sugar. An elimination diet is a great way to ‘illuminate’ what foods are causing trouble for you. In the longer term, the focus should be on an anti-inflammatory diet.
  4. Get the right amount of exercise. Not too much, but not too little. We need to keep out bodies moving, but this doesn’t mean we need to become gym junkies. Walking is a great form of exercise that has proven health benefits. 10,000 steps per day is a great level to aim for. Once comfortable with that, add in some strength training and maybe some HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). Don’t overdo it, though. Too much can lead to inflammation, and not enough can lead to inflammation. There is a goldilocks sweat spot with exercise.
  5. Get enough sleep. Get to bed by 10 pm if possible, and work on improving your sleep quality. If you need more help to improve sleep, check out my sleep tips.
  6. Learn ways to manage stress. We can’t eliminate stress altogether. We live in a busy, complex world. Meditation is one way we can positively impact our ability to cope with the challenges of life. There are some great app’s available now that talk you through the process of learning to meditate in a mindful way. These include CALM, Insight Timer and the Headspace app. Movement meditation is another form that includes yoga and qi gong. It’s best to find a form of meditation that you enjoy, and then keep at it. Research suggests the stress-busting benefits come from creating a regular meditation habit. Even as little as 10 minutes a day, like most of the app’s provide, can have profound effects on our stress hormones.
  7. Work on improving detoxification pathways. Our liver is the key to detoxification, and we need to support it by turning off the tap of toxins coming in. We also need to provide our livers with the nutrients needed to act as cofactors for the optimisation of detoxification pathways. This is best done through food, but supplementation with liver supporting cofactors might be required in the early days.

When we understand WHY we are experiencing health challenges, it gives us something practical to do, to turn things around. Our genetics are only one piece of the health puzzle. But contrary to what science used to believe, it is a modifiable piece. This is what I found with both my child and myself. We made improvements in our diet and lifestyle habits and supported the body to heal itself, and our symptoms of dysfunction improved. It didn’t happen overnight. It takes time for dysfunction to appear and so it takes time for improvements to come. But for both of us, they did come.

Changes can come for you too. If you want to learn more about genetic testing, or the urinary Organic Acid Test please reach out to me via my contact me page.

If you want to learn more about Functional Nutrition, and the use of dietary and lifestyle tweaks to improve your health, you can organise a complimentary 15 minutes phone chat for us to talk about your situation.

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