Before I go onto Part II of my previous post, another blog post that popped into my head was too good to just forget about. I recently took a short course on Epigenetics and was instantly hooked. Not only are we learning how diet impacts gene expression in early development, we are also learning how our lifestyle choices are impacting the health and behaviour in generations that follow.
Epigenetics which is a field within Nutritional Genomics, involves the activation and silencing of genes without a change in the DNA structure. These epigenetic changes can include DNA methylation, histone modifications and post-translational modifications. Several dietary bioactive components such as folic acid, green tea and soy have already been studied for their impact on gene expression, in addition new fields such as behavioural epigenetics are developing fast. I recently read this article in the New York Times which made me think of my grandfather and this very fascinating field.
My grandfather, a black man, fought in the second world war as part of contracted allied forces from South Africa. He fought in Italy during World war II against the nazis alongside his white countrymen, europeans and Americans with the single goal of freeing the jews. They all experienced the stress, the trauma and hardships that went along with fighting in a war.
On his return to his wife (my grandmother) and family which by then included 6 children, the South-African government at the time, called all of those who fought bravely for their country to collect their rewards. Whilst the white soldiers proudly collected their certficates to land estates assigned to them, the black soldiers received bicycles…..yes, you read that right, bicycles!. My grandfather, a proud and not highly educated man, refused to collect his and made other plans instead. His love for adventure, culture and independence fuelled his his entrepreneurial spirit to eventually build a successful business and being his own boss. He was always singing traditional Italian songs, exercising daily and eating healthily. He never drank or smoked. Although he was very disappointed how he and his fellow black soldiers were treated, he carried on with his life, never bearing a grudge.
Today, we know that like food preferences, resilience can be passed down generations too. Our ability to deal with stress, cope with traumatic experiences and process our fears may all be written in our genes. We also know that our diet and lifestyle plays a big role in the switching on and off of genes that may contribute to the development of cancers. My love for travelling, entrepreneurit spirit and preference for Italian food may just be that proof that indeed my grandad left something behind. This emerging field is fascinating to follow, and we will no doubt learn so much more about how our health is directly linked with our lifestyle in the years to come.
Although my grandfather did not accept his bicycle in a physical sense, he did look after his offspring in an epigenetic sense, he was healthy, he was a fighter and he was happy. If you think of the bicycle as you mode of transport onto the path of health and wellbeing, what changes will you make today? remember……your genes are not your destiny, the choices you make today are……. RIP Grandad
So what should you know about Epigenetics?
- Epigenetics are heritable changes not encoded in the DNA sequence but play an important role in gene expresssion
- Our diet can switch genes on or off by adding or removing methyl groups to the DNA structure which affect cellular function and metabolism.
- Epigenetic research is discovering how our diet and lifestyle choices can lead to the development of chronic diseases such as Diabetes, Cancer, Metabolic Syndrome and CVD
- Foods such as soya, curcumin, green tea and polyphenols may have an impact on gene expression but we need more research on dosage, duration and timing of exposure to the bioactive compounds
- Epigenetic marks are reversible unlike our genotype that remains the same
Mariëtte Abrahams MBA RD is a freelance dietitian, nutrigenomics nutritionist and business consultant. She is the director of Pomegranate Nutrition Consulting which specialises in providing technical expertise on personalized nutrition to the (Bio)Technology, Functional Food and PR industry. W:https://marietteabrahams.com, T:+351 964450622 E:mariette”at”marietteabrahams.com