What Is Epigenetics

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Nutritiion, Obesity

Can What We Eat Affect Our Kids?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

what is epigeneticsWhat is epigenetics?  For me, the first stages of understanding came a while back.  When I was a young graduate student (which is more than just a few years ago), I was taught that all genetic information resided in our DNA. During conception, we picked up some DNA from our dad and some from our mom, and that DNA was what made us a unique individual.

We knew that environmental influences such as diet, lifestyle and exposure to toxic chemicals could affect our health personally. However, we never dreamed that the effects of those environmental influences could actually alter our gene expression, and that those genetic alterations could be passed on to our children.

Today we know that environmental influences can actually modify our DNA and that those modifications can be passed on to our offspring – a process called epigenetics.

What Is Epigenetics & How Does It Affect Gene Expression?

Simply put, epigenetics involves modifications to our DNA. DNA can be methylated or acetylated and the proteins that bind to our DNA can be modified in multiple ways. That is important for two reasons:

  • These alterations can turn genes on and off. That means that epigenetic modifications can alter gene expression.
  • These alterations can be influenced by our environment – diet, lifestyle, and exposure to environmental chemicals

In a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article titled “Can Diet Alter Your Genetic Destiny?”  I discussed recent research suggesting that a healthy diet and lifestyle causes epigenetic changes in the DNA that may reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

That alone was a monumental discovery. Even more monumental is the recent discovery that at least some of those epigenetic changes can be passed on to our children, which brings me to the question I posed in the title of this article: “Can what we eat affect our kids?”

Animal Studies Showing That Epigenetic Changes Can Be Inherited

epigenetic changes are inheritedAs is often the case, the first definitive study showed that epigenetic changes were heritable was an animal study. This study was done with a mouse strain called agouti (Waterman and Jirtle, Mol. Cell. Biol. 23: 5193 – 5300, 2003). Agouti mice can have two remarkably distinctive phenotypes. They can either have a yellow coat, become obese as adults and be prone to cancer and diabetes as they age or they can have a brown coat and grow up to be lean and healthy.

It had been known for some time that these phenotypic differences were controlled by the epigenetic methylation of a specific gene called the agouti gene. The agouti gene codes for a genetic regulator that controls coat color, feeding behavior, and body weight set-point, among other things. When the agouti gene is under methylated it is active. As a consequence the mice have yellow coats and are prone to obesity. When the agouti gene is highly methylated it is inactive. The mice have brown coats and are lean and healthy.

Moreover, methylation of the agouti gene is not a purely random event. Mothers with the yellow, obese phenotype tended to produce a preponderance of offspring with the same phenotype and vice-versa. In short, the epigenetic methylation pattern of the agouti gene could be passed from generation to generation. It was heritable.

Waterman and Jirtle’s research broke new ground by showing that the methylation of the agouti gene could be strongly influenced by what the mother ate while the fetal mice were still in the womb.

When they fed agouti mothers a diet with extra folic acid, B12, betaine and choline (all nutrients that favor DNA methylation) during conception and pregnancy the agouti gene of their offspring became highly methylated. A high percentage of those offspring had brown coats and grew up to be lean and healthy.

However, when Waterman and Jirtle put agouti mothers on a diet that was deficient in folic acid, B12, betaine and choline during conception and pregnancy the agouti gene of their offspring was under methylated. Many of those offspring had yellow coats and grew up to be fat and unhealthy.

Subsequent studies from the same laboratory have shown that:

  • Addition of genistein, a phytonutrient from soy, to the maternal diet also favors methylation of the agouti gene and protects against obesity in agouti mice (Dolinoy et al, Environmental Health Perspective, 114: 567-572, 2006).
  • The addition of the environmental toxin bisphenol A to maternal diets causes under methylation of the agouti gene and predisposes to obesity in agouti mice, but this effect can be reversed by also feeding the mother genistein or folic acid and related nutrients during pregnancy (Dolinoy et al, PNAS, 13056-13061, 2007).

The agouti mice studies provide a dramatic example of how diet and environmental exposure during pregnancy can cause epigenetic changes in fetal DNA that have long term health consequences for the offspring. However, they are animal studies. Does the same hold true for humans?

Diet, Epigenetic Changes, and Obesity in Humans

diet-epigenetic-changes-obesityWith humans, it is really difficult to determine whether epigenetic changes that occur during conception and pregnancy affect our children. That is because when you measure an epigenetic effect in a child or adult, it is difficult to sort out how much of that effect was caused by what the mom ate during pregnancy and how much was caused by how the family ate as the kids were growing up.

Unfortunately, there is a tragic human experiment that shows that the same kind of epigenetic changes are heritable in humans. I’m referring to what is known as the “Dutch Hunger Winter”. This was a period of starvation during 1944-1945, the final year of World War II, when the Germans set up a blockade that prevented food from reaching western Holland. During that few months even pregnant women were forced to live on food rations providing a little as 500 calories a day.

This was an event without parallel in human history. Holland is not a third world country. Once the blockade was lifted children born during the Hunger Winter had the same plentiful supply of food as every other Dutch citizen. This has allowed generations of research scientists to ask what were the effects of a brief exposure to malnutrition during conception and pregnancy.

The health consequences were dramatic. 50 years later individuals who were conceived during the Hunger Winter weighed about 14 pounds more, had waists about 1.5 “ larger, and were three times more likely to have heart disease than those born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during that time. By the time they reached age 63, they experienced a 10% increase in mortality.

What caused those health consequences? Could the cause have been epigenetic? Recent research suggests that the answer might be yes.

A recent study analyzed epigenetic changes in DNA from blood samples of survivors born during the Hunger Winter that had been collected when they were 59 years old (Tobi et al, Int. J. Epidemiology, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyv043, 2015). This study showed:

  • A distinct pattern of DNA methylation was observed in survivors who were conceived during the Hunger Winter. This pattern of DNA methylation was not observed in survivors who were in their second or third trimester during the Hunger Winter. It was also not seen in people who were conceived immediately before or after the Hunger Winter.
  • Some of the genes with distinctive methylation patterns were genes that affected things like cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity, which have the potential to increase disease risk.
  • Other genes with distinctive methylation patterns were genes that affected metabolism. They were “thrifty” genes that increased the efficiency of metabolism. Increased efficiency of metabolism is beneficial when calories are scarce, but can lead to obesity when calories are plentiful.

That is a truly remarkable finding when you think about it. If these data are true, they suggest that starvation during early pregnancy caused the fetus to make epigenetic changes to its DNA that allowed it to become more efficient at energy utilization, and those epigenetic changes have lasted a lifetime – even when food was abundant throughout the rest of that lifetime.

What Is Epigenetics And Can What We Eat Affect Our Kids?

can what we eat affect our kidsThe studies I featured in this article are powerful “proof of concept” that diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can result in epigenetic changes to the DNA of the offspring that can persist throughout their life and dramatically affect their health. However, it is not yet clear how they apply to you and me.

  • Agouti mice are a very special strain of mice. It is not yet clear what effect folic acid, genistein and bisphenol A have on epigenetic modification of specific human genes, and whether those epigenetic modifications will have health consequences in humans.
  • The specific circumstances of the Dutch Hunger Winter are unlikely to be repeated on any significant scale. The closest approximation I can envision would be a woman who becomes pregnant while on a very low calorie fad diet.

There are, of course, many other examples of heritable epigenetic modifications. For example:

  • When female rats are maintained on a “junk-food diet” high in fat and sugar during pregnancy and lactation their offspring show a marked preference for high fat foods (Ong & Muhlhausler, FASB J, 25: 2167-2179, 2011). They also show epigenetic alterations of the central reward pathways that may pre-condition them to require higher intakes of fat to experience pleasure from eating.
  • When rats are fed diets deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, adolescent rats from the second and subsequent generations display marked increases in hyperactivity and anxiety (For more details, see my “Health Tips from the Professor” article titled “The Seventh Generation Revisited”.
  • In a clinical trial of 162 obese Canadian mothers who had children before and after weight loss surgery, the children born after weight loss surgery were half as likely to grow up overweight or obese as the children born before the weight loss surgery (Smith et al, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 94: 4275-4283, 2009), and this correlated with epigenetic modification of genes that play a role in obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease (Guernard et al, PNAS 110: 11439-11443, 2013).

Taken together, the existing data suggest that our diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can cause epigenetic changes to our children’s DNA that may affect their future health in ways that we can only begin to understand at present. It is a sobering thought.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • The term epigenetics describes modifications to our DNA that turn our genes off and on.
  • In this article I discussed two powerful “proof of concept” studies, one in rats and the other in humans, showing that diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can result in epigenetic changes to the DNA of the offspring that can persist throughout their life and dramatically affect their health.
  • The health consequences of these epigenetic modifications include obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, hyperactivity, anxiety and many more.
  • This is a new paradigm. Most prenatal nutrition advice is currently based on what it takes to have a healthy baby – not on what it might take for your child to experience better health throughout their life.
  • Of course, the science of epigenetics is relatively new. It will be many years before we will be able to make specific recommendations as to what your diet should be like during pregnancy and lactation if you wish to make beneficial modifications to your baby’s DNA.
  • However, you should be aware that what you eat during pregnancy & lactation may influence the health of your children – not just at the time of their birth – but throughout their life, and that a high calorie, “junk-food” diet or a fad weight loss diet just may not be your best choice.

*The agouti mice picture is by Randy Jirtle and Dana Dolinoy (E-mailed by author) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Mary Butler

    |

    I have long wondered why a beautiful, gifted mom and wife of 5 gifted children, is morbidly obese. She is in her 40’s and struggling for life from cancer. Doctors have given up on her…..so very tragic! This may be the answer, her mom is also morbidly obese. Her one sibling is moderately overweight. Thank you for all you do.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Groin Pain Relief

Posted April 16, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Pectineus Muscle And Why Is It Important?

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT –The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

Spring Is In The Air

spring floridaI remember as a child we sang “Though April showers may come your way…they bring the flowers that bloom in May…”

Of course, here in Florida we are blessed with flowers all year, but there’s still a lovely feeling that happens in Spring.  It’s still cool enough most days to go out running, and the humidity is still low.  Traffic will soon be easing up as our friends from the north start their trek back home, and daylight savings time is giving us more time to get to the beach for sunset.  Lovely!

Fun Facts About Spring….

  • The earliest known use of the term “spring cleaning” was in 1857
  • The word “spring” has been used for the season since the 16th century
  • The first day of spring is called the vernal equinox
  • On the first day of spring, the sunrise and sunset are about 12 hours apart everywhere on earth
  • Spring fever isn’t just a saying. Experts say the body changes due to the temperature and can cause an upset in your health.
  • The actual start of spring varies from March 19th to the 21st, but it is commonly celebrated on the 21st.

Do you like to garden?  Now is the perfect time to get your gardens planted so you’ll have home grown veggies for the entire summer.  For me, it’s also a great time to do some spring cleaning and get the house in order before the summer closes all the windows and the air conditioning becomes our indoor relief.

But these activities can also cause a strain on muscles, so don’t forget to take care of yourself. If you put too much strain on muscles you haven’t used all winter, you can develop problems and need groin pain relief.

 

A Tiny Muscle Can Cause Groin Pain

groin pain relief pectineusLately I’ve had several clients come in because of groin pain that has their medical practitioners stumped.  Their symptoms are varied, but most complain that it feels like they hit their pubic bone with a rubber mallet.  Ouch!

One client loves to ride her horse, but the pain had prevented that for several weeks. Another was considering selling the motorcycle that she and her husband love because she just can’t sit on it anymore.

Several years ago, I had a male client tell me that he had this same pain and he was told it could be his prostrate causing the issue.  Fortunately, that wasn’t he problem at all.

The muscle that caused all these problems, and a lot more, is the Pectineus.

The Pectineus muscle originates on your pubic bone and inserts into the very top of your inner thigh bone (femur).

You can see the Pectineus and surrounding muscles more clearly by going to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pectineus_muscle

Most muscles have more than one function, and this is true for the Pectineus.  The function we’ll look at today is called adduction.  It brings your leg in toward midline.  If you think of a soccer player kicking the ball with the inside of his ankle, it was the Pectineus that helped draw his leg in so he could do the shot.

Each of my clients had pain while trying to bring their leg out so they could sit on their horse, or on their motorcycle.  The tight muscle was pulling on their pubic bone and causing a severe strain.

This muscle is easier to have someone else treat it for you because of its location but give it a try and see if you can locate & treat it yourself.

 

Groin Pain Relief

groin pain relief treatmentThe picture to the left is showing an athlete self-treating her adductors.  These muscles, and the Pectineus muscle, all originate at the same point on the pubic bone.  The picture is showing her massaging the middle of the adductors.

To reach the Pectineus, move the ball all the way up to the crease in your leg.  You can do the treatment with a ball, but because of the size of the muscle and its location, it’s easier to do it with your fingertips.

Sit as this athlete is sitting, and even bring your opposite leg up so your foot is flat on the floor.  For example, in this picture, the athlete would bring her right leg up so her right foot is on the floor, and then lean a bit further onto her left hip.  That opens up the area so she can reach a bit easier into the muscle while using her fingertips.

Press into the muscle, being careful to feel for a pulse, and moving if you feel one.  If the Pectineus is in spasm, you’ll know it immediately when you press on it.  If it’s not in spasm, you won’t be able to find it at all.

Remember to stay within your pain tolerance level, this isn’t a “no pain, no gain” situation.  Never go deeper than what feels tender, but not so much that you want to faint. Hold the pressure for 15 seconds. Then let up on the pressure, but keep your fingers in the same place.

Repeat this movement several times. Each time it will hurt less, and eventually it won’t hurt at all.  That’s when the muscle has completely released, and you will have relief from the pain.

It’s as simple as that!

Why stay in pain when it’s so easy to find the muscular source of the problem and eliminate it?

calf cramps remedy bookTreat Yourself to Pain-Free Living (https://julstromethod.com/product/treat-yourself-to-pain-free-living-hardcopy/). It is filled with over 100 pictures and descriptions proven to show you how to find and self-treat muscle spasms from head to foot!

Join the 1000’s of people worldwide who have discovered that tight muscles were the true source of pains they thought were from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other serious conditions.  You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by releasing tight muscles.

Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living is your step-by-step guide to pain relief!

 

Wishing you well,

 

Julie Donnelly

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

julie donnellyAbout The Author

Julie Donnelly is a Deep Muscle Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience specializing in the treatment of chronic joint pain and sports injuries. She has worked extensively with elite athletes and patients who have been unsuccessful at finding relief through the more conventional therapies.

She has been widely published, both on – and off – line, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers around the country. She is also often chosen to speak at national conventions, medical schools, and health facilities nationwide.

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