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

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    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

One of the Little known Causes of Headaches

Posted August 15, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Your Sleeping Position May Be Causing Your Headaches!

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

Can sleeping position be one of the causes of headaches?  

A Sleeping position that has your head tilted puts pressure on your spinal cord and will cause headaches. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times, and the reasoning is so logical it’s easy to understand.

causes of headachesYour spinal cord runs from your brain, through each of your vertebrae, down your arms and legs. Nerves pass out of the vertebrae and go to every cell in your body, including each of your organs. When you are sleeping it is important to keep your head, neck, and spine in a horizontal plane so you aren’t straining the muscles that insert into your vertebrae.

The graphic above is a close-up of your skull and the cervical (neck) vertebrae. Your nerves are shown in yellow, and your artery is shown in red.  Consider what happens if you hold your head to one side for hours. You can notice that the nerves and artery will likely be press upon. Also, since your spinal cord comes down the inside of the vertebrae, it will also be impinged.

In 2004 the Archives of Internal Medicine published an article stating that 1 out of 13 people have morning headaches. It’s interesting to note that the article never mentions the spinal cord being impinged by the vertebrae. That’s a major oversight!

Muscles merge into tendons, and the tendons insert into the bone.  As you stayed in the tilted position for hours, the muscles actually shortened to the new length.  Then you try to turn over, but the short muscles are holding your cervical vertebrae tightly, and they can’t lengthen.

The weight of your head pulls on the vertebrae, putting even more pressure on your spinal cord and nerves.  Plus, the tight muscles are pulling on the bones, causing pain on the bone.

Your Pillow is Involved in Your Sleeping Position and the Causes of  Headaches

sleep left side

The analogy I always use is; just as pulling your hair hurts your scalp, the muscle pulling on the tendons hurts the bone where it inserts.  In this case it is your neck muscles putting a strain on your cervical bones.  For example, if you sleep on your left side and your pillow is too thick, your head will be tilted up toward the ceiling. This position tightens the muscles on the right side of your neck.

sleeping in car and desk

Dozing off while sitting in a car waiting for someone to arrive, or while working for hours at your desk can also horizontal line sleepcause headaches. The pictures above show a strain on the neck when you fall asleep without any support on your neck. Both of these people will wake up with a headache, and with stiffness in their neck.

The best sleeping position to prevent headaches is to have your pillow adjusted so your head, neck, and spine are in a horizontal line. Play with your pillows, putting two thin pillows into one case if necessary. If your pillow is too thick try to open up a corner and pull out some of the stuffing.

 

sleeping on stomachSleeping on Your Back & Stomach

If you sleep on your back and have your head on the mattress, your spine is straight. All you need is a little neck pillow for support, and a pillow under your knees.

Stomach sleeping is the worst sleeping position for not only headaches, but so many other aches and pains. It’s a tough habit to break, but it can be done. This sleeping position deserves its own blog, which I will do in the future.

 

Treating the Muscles That Cause Headaches

sleeping position causes of headachesAll of the muscles that originate or insert into your cervical vertebrae, and many that insert into your shoulder and upper back, need to be treated.  The treatments are all taught in Treat Yourself to Pain Free Living, in the neck and shoulder chapters.  Here is one treatment that will help you get relief.

Take either a tennis ball or the Perfect Ball (which really is Perfect because it has a solid center and soft outside) and press into your shoulder as shown.  You are treating a muscle called Levator Scapulae which pulls your cervical vertebrae out of alignment when it is tight.

Hold the press for about 30 seconds, release, and then press again.

Your pillow is a key to neck pain and headaches caused by your sleeping position.  It’s worth the time and energy to investigate how you sleep and correct your pillow.  I believe this blog will help you find the solution and will insure you have restful sleep each night.

Wishing you well,

Julie Donnelly

 

About The Author

julie donnelly

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.

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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