Mention Epigenetics and you will probably encounter a few puzzled expressions. A subject that has been around for quite a while, it is now finally getting the recognition it deserves, so expect to be hearing more about this life-changing science.
Certified Epigenetic Precision Performance Coach Tabea Badr brought us up to date in a recent chat.
Tabea, In a nutshell, what is Epigenetics, and how does it differ from genetics?
Imagine genetics being the hardware or computer of the human system, the software is Epigenetics. The understanding of DNA is just the beginning. The complex DNA orchestration and expressions are mind-blowing properties.
This orchestration is a field of study called Epigenetics and may very well be the most important scientific discovery of our generation. What we have known for decades is that all of the cells in our body have the same genetic information, the same book of instructions, if you like. But they can have very different functions.
Not all of the genes are used in all of the cells at the same time, but rather just a select few and this is enabled by marks called epigenetic marks. Just like in any language we have spaces between words, full stops, exclamation and question marks at the end of the sentences.
In a genome (the whole of our hereditary information encoded in DNA) these epigenetic marks act like punctuations and really allow the cell to read the information that’s there and interpret how it should be read. Should it be read out loud and a lot and therefore have an exclamation mark? Or should it be switched off, silenced and covered with full stops. Essentially this is what Epigenetics is all about.
Can Epigenetics change your DNA?
An extreme example of Epigenetics is the butterfly. During metamorphosis, the larva changes to a butterfly, totally different from the larva in appearance and metabolism and yet it happens very quickly.
The cell divisions act in unison with all the cells to regulate gene expression, producing what LOOKS like a totally different creature, though the DNA remains fixed. DNA provides the genes and Epigenetics decides which genes are expressed and to what level.
Or consider the honey bee, all the bees in the hives are genetically identical, yet all of them become workers except one special bee which becomes the queen. How does she do it? Through diet and lifestyle. From the time the bee is a baby bee she is fed a special diet and grows in a special comb, that is all it takes for her to grow into bee royalty.
This special environment is potent enough to change the bee’s epigenetic make-up, changing not the DNA code as such, but its expression.
What factors can affect your Epigenetic structure?
What fascinated me most about epigenetics is the fact that our bodies are able to produce different outcomes depending on our environmental inputs, therefore controlling the mechanisms of disease, prevention, the factors to reverse chronic disease and the pace of aging.
I was taken by nature’s perfection of putting the control over our inherited genome in our own hand, empowering us to be in the driver’s seat of our lives and health. There is less than three percent of genes that are fully penetrable, as what we call mutations, the rest are variants we all have to make us unique.
That leaves us the power to self-regulate the body through sleep, stress management, movement, awareness of emotions, nutrition, hormone optimization, biological rhythms and alignment of our soul’s purpose.
Does diet play a role?
Yes, diet is a big part of it, but if we address the body through a lens of full human optimization, looking into a system’s approach of what is going well versus what is going wrong, we can optimize and enhance the human system throughout all areas like nutrition, supplementation, sleep, environmental health and detoxification, athletic performance and hormonal balance.
Like little antennae reaching out picking up on everything happening around us, our immediate external and internal environments are constantly monitored by our body’s intelligence and without understanding the holistic implications, optimal levels of health cannot be achieved.
Food is more than just nourishing our body, food is information and function with molecules working on the cellular level, changing the expression of our genes.
Nutrigenetics is the term used when we optimize our nutritional intake in accordance with our genetic blueprint. We can modify our diet to accommodate our genes and eat for our gene type, taking into consideration macronutrients like carbohydrate/fat/protein, appetite and satiety, grain, gluten and dairy sensitivities, sugar addictions and insulin resistance to optimize our system.
Are epigenetic factors hereditary?
There is now enough evidence to say trans-generational responses exist in humans and countless studies show how epigenetic hereditary factors can affect us. Like couples who were exposed to a famine period before they conceived, which led to increased mental and metabolic disorders and altered glucose tolerance in their offspring leading to increased diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, with those traits also more common in their grandchildren.
No such defects were detected when children of the same parents were conceived in periods of no famine or when the pregnancy was already manifested in a later stage, leaving us to think that the most sensitive periods to environmental changes on our genes are during fertilization and embryonic development.
Some scientists argue that it makes evolutionary sense for our bodies to send signals about the environment across generations. If a baby is being conceived in a world of famine, then its chances of survival will be increased if its body can be ‘prepared‘ before birth.
Many more studies show grandparental effects, sex-specific, like a paternal grandfather’s excessive food supply linked to a grandson’s mortality (diabetes, heart condition) or a grandmother’s effects of smoking that can be passed through the 1st generation mother to the 2nd generation baby in her womb and be inherited by the ovaries of the 3rd generation baby in the womb and cause asthma. The eggs and sperm are already arriving with a gene expression pattern determined by ancestral exposure.
Does the environment you are raised in have an influence?
Absolutely! Studies on identical twins had a profound impact on understanding where natures vs. nurture merge to create the on-going expression of you. Imagine you had a secret identical twin, raised by another family that makes different choices than you do growing up.
Your twin smokes, has a stressful job, loves sugar and has a sedentary lifestyle in front of the TV. You on the other hand love to run, eat organic food from your garden and meditate. These lifestyle choices modify your gene expression and create your first known epigenome, by creating epigenetic tags that sit on top of your genes.
In your imaginary twin’s tags, it would say smoker, overweight, high cholesterol etc. In contrast, your tags would read smoke-free, healthy weight, great sleep, and calm nervous system and so on.
In other words, who you are is dependent not just on the genes you were born with but how those genes interface with your environment and how your environment influences how your genes express.
How can the science of epigenetics be used in today’s health treatments?
Genetic analysis (DNA tests) are never absolutes, but rather propensities, making it crucial to understand the epigenetic machinery throughout a systemic approach, connecting all the dots of genetic variants that can be optimized through lifestyle changes, with high-end supplementation, peptides, stress management, hormonal optimization, exercise and cognitive enhancement because they control our genetic code or unique blueprint.
Imagine certain things are written in pen that cannot be changed, like eye color, hair type or height, that’s in your genes. Things written in pencil can be changed, like weight, mindset, energy and health, that is Epigenetics.
Labeled as mutations, these genetic variations or SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) are existing in different forms of the same gene in the population and can be viewed as a typo in copying your genes but they are not to be judged good or bad, they just make you unique and who you are. Epigenetic coaching is the medicine of the future, to maximize human performance and the genetic potential we all have.
Can epigenetic factors cause certain diseases and health conditions?
Any known chronic disease today is triggered by changes to the epigenome, the layer on top and around the genes. Available evidence suggests, with chronic cellular inflammation being the root cause of all disease, that advanced knowledge of these inheritable changes to gene expression are independent of changes to DNA.
The three main burdensome diseases globally, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimers are very predictable and can be prevented through an optimized way of life. By upgrading the human experience, leveraging genetics, epigenetic lifestyle components and client-specific goals, the path to human performance can be taken to a whole new level.
How does our body tap into epigenetics in times of stress?
Stress is a huge epigenetic modifier, inducing persistent functional changes in the main epigenetic outcome, leading to active DNA expression, priming to downstream health effects. Therefore cells are continually challenged by stress and a swift response can mean the difference between health and illness.
We have an epidemic of stress-related illnesses today and as it’s impossible to live without stress, it is essential to learn how to cope with it. Knowing that you are in control of your life is the foundation of managing stress.
Genetic variants, including methylation status, can predispose us to a better or worse stress response, and through epigenetic coaching we address the brain, or amygdala, in combination with certain supplementation to optimize more normal stress resilience, making you antifragile and the warrior you deserve to be.