Hand-Me-Down Genes

  • Written by Submitted by Alex Kraft, ND Lac, Health Moves, Woodinville

Let’s start with a question: Which of the following are true?

1. You inherit genes from your parents that predispose you to certain traits.

2. The expression or activation of genes in your DNA is influenced by your diet and lifestyle factors.

As with most questions of this sort, the answer is of course both. Darwin began the modern thought that genes from parents are passed on to their offspring in part through random genetic variation.

But the new field of epigenetics takes this a step further by showing the influence one’s lifestyle and genetic background has on our gene expression or activation.

Why is that?

The DNA which exists in each of us contains packets of directions (genes) for what our cells and hence our bodies should do. But unlike the directions for operating your dishwasher, gene directions can change based on their environment. The most obvious example of this is that every cell in our body has the exact same genetic material, the exact same instructions as to what to do, but some cells become part of the heart while others become part of a finger.

These cells have a different fate because the signals from the cells around them are different.

They are in a different environment. In addition to this, it seems that which genes are turned on or off are also influenced by which genes were active in our parents!

What the modern field of epigenetics is starting to see is that our nutrition and our exposure to chemicals are having an impact on whether or not we develop disease.  And even more interesting is that science is starting to show that what happens with our genes not only determines what happens to us, but can influence what happens to our kids!

Johns Hopkins University now even has a department of epigenetics which is looking into how this influences the chances for developing autism and bipolar disorder.

In one of the most well-known examples of epigenetics, Francis Pottenger conducted an experiment in the 1940s in which he fed cats a diet of either cooked animal products and meat, or the same foods in their raw form (more ideal for cats).

What Dr. Pottenger found was that the cats fed the raw food diet were typical cats with some developing disease later in life, but the cats fed the cooked foods were not as healthy. OK, interesting.

But he also found that the offspring of the cats fed the cooked meats and processed foods developed disease earlier and earlier in subsequent generations.

That is, the same illnesses that occurred later in life in the “grandparents” consuming cooked foods developed earlier in their children with the same diet, and even earlier in their children (the grandchildren).

Finally, he found that by the third generation (the grandchildren), these cats were essentially infertile or did not survive to reproductive age. (Just to be clear, he did not propose that the ideal diet for humans would be raw meat scraps.)

So, as always, what do we do about this? If one has children or expects to have children, one’s obvious course of action is to eat a healthy, whole-foods-based diet and limit the amount of chemical exposure you have, knowing that this will have a positive influence on you and your future children/grandchildren.

Perhaps this is further motivation to eat well and live a more “organic” life.  And, modern nutritional science has found yet another reason to eat your broccoli, cauliflower and kale. In particular, while everyone has heard that broccoli and other “cruciferous” vegetables are healthy, it seems that these groups of plants contain nutrients (sulforaphanes) which actually turn on genes in our cells to help prevent cancer and increase our overall antioxidant ability.  And these genes continue to function for three days.  And these genes help our liver function better and improve our cholesterol — just from eating broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale!  And not only that, if you want to be a real hippie, you can eat broccoli sprouts or take supplements containing sulforaphanes and get WAY more of these amazingly protective chemicals. This is short term epigenetics in action.

The concept of epigenetics is reminiscent of the Native American belief that we need to think of our actions not only for us personally, but also for seven generations forward.

This seems to play out in terms of our environmental stewardship, but also apparently that how we eat actually influences the DNA of subsequent generations.

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