Two of the most common phrases I hear are “Well it’s in my genes so there is nothing I can do about it” or “Well my grandparents lived well into their 90’s and never had anything wrong health wise and they ate burgers, bacon, and didn’t exercise. My parents are doing fine too”
We all do this to some extent right? We base our health based on others in our family. Makes perfect sense! But there is something that we all seem to be missing. The majority of us think our genes equal the exact health outcome to expect. This dear friends, is only partially true.
Genetics are like tickets to a game. If you have a ticket (gene) then you are much more likely to go to the game than someone who does not have a ticket (gene). However, based on your choices leading up to the game you can decide not to go or you could end up going to the game even if you did not have a ticket. This would be the cause of epigenetics.
Erin what the heck is epigenetics? Epigenetics are known has heritable changes in DNA function without changes in the DNA sequence. This happens when a methyl group (a carbon atom attaches to three hydrogen atoms) attaches to specific sites on a gene. This process is referred to as DNA methylation. When DNA methylation occurs it alters the gene activation and expression. Therefore turning it off or turning it on, or even making it act quieter or louder.
Methylation takes place as a response to our ever changing environments. Epigenetic changes in both men and women can be passed down even as far as the third generation.
Epigenetic changes have been shown to occur even during fetal development and have lasting effects into adulthood. For example, if a woman eats poorly during pregnancy (malnutrition from the lack proper nutrients) her baby would have significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease as an adult.
Epigenetic responses can have effects on our offspring even before they are thought of. One fascinating study showed that sons of men who smoked prior to puberty would have an increased risk of obesity and other health problems as adults as well.
Another study in northern Sweden showed granddaughters and grandsons lived a shorter life if their grandmothers and grandfathers went from normal eating to gluttonous diets when there was abundance during the winter harvest. These life spans were also shorter when compared to the grandchildren of those who had less food supply in the years prior.
The question has been asked if epigenetic changes are permanent changes. The answer is, possibly, but we need to remember epigenetics should not be confused with evolution. Evolution changes DNA where epigenetic changes are biological responses to our environments.
A lesson we can all learn from this is we can all live a life of improved health. By understanding the lives our grandparents and parents lived we can change the course set for our future children and change the course of our current health. We need to own the responsibility we all have to our individual health and make the changes we find needed to improve the health of our children and therefore our grandchildren.