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Focus On Epigenetics

Picture of a DNA structure jigsaw puzzle.
Profile picture on Ilene S. Ruhoy, MD, PhD
Medical Director, Neurologist

We inherit our genes and there is not much we can do to change our genotype or our genetic constitution. But the ever-expanding field of epigenetics suggests there may be something we can do to alter the expression of those genes and therefore our phenotype or how our bodies express our genotype.

Epigenetics studies the profile of the modifications to our unique DNA that control gene expression. Unlike our core genomes, epigenomic changes can be affected by exposures from our environment and our diet, our stress levels, how we sleep, who we come into contact with, and how we move. In addition to gene expression, epigenetic changes can alter development and tissue differentiation. These epigenetic changes are imprinted, meaning we can pass them down to future generations, just as we received the changes from our ancestors (hence, the thought that cells ‘remember’ traumatic events may be true. I am pretty sure I hold onto the trauma of my grandparent's history of concentration camp imprisonment.). Indeed, when we inherit two copies of a gene from our parents, one of them is silenced – a form of epigenetics – as it ultimately changes the way that gene is expressed.

Common mechanisms considered to be epigenetic including methylation of DNA, modifications of histone complexes, and chromatin remodeling. This is important because we also have SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), or common genetic variations that occur normally in our DNA. Studies suggest these SNPs can control epigenetic changes. This would mean some epigenetic phenomenon is actually genetic and therefore perhaps not as under our control as we would think.

The advent of genetic testing allows us to learn quite of bit about our genetic vulnerabilities as sell as our SNPs. The accuracy of identifying mutations or disease-associated SNPs is one concern but, importantly, studies have shown the interpretation of these SNPs are not as reliable so one should be cautious regarding conferring risk of a disease based on these reports. The majority of SNPs tested provide only incremental changes in a patient’s risk profile.

Neurologic disorders are associated with known genetic mutations, variants, as well as epigenomic changes. As a board-certified neurologist, integrative medicine physician, and environmental toxicologist, I review SNPs with patients and discuss their risks and what to do to help prevent neurodegenerative disorders, which may come from epigenetic changes that are under our control. Here are just a few of my recommendations:

  • Include more fruits and vegetables in your diet. These earth based foods contain phytochemicals, fibers, minerals, and vitamins that are so important to reduce free-radical damage and inflammation. Avoid animal protein which is highly inflammatory.
  • Sleep well. The brain is a circadian organ and this should be respected. Without proper rest, the brain cannot restore and regenerate.
  • Avoid environmental exposures where you can. Eat organic, use non-toxic cleaning products, avoid second-hand smoke, electromagnetic fields, and air with high particulate matter.
  • Manage stress with exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, and adaptogenic plants.
  • Move every single day with exercise including yoga, pilates, running, weight training, walking, and Zumba classes.
  • Target your health risks with appropriate supplementation of herbs and vitamins. The use of multivitamins is not necessary if we are eating a whole foods diet.
  • Get outdoors in nature and wonder at the trees, the plants, the dirt (take your shoes off!), the ocean, and the sky.
  • Try intermittent fasting to reduce the mitochondrial burden of GI processes and allow for diversion of energy for brain and body support.
  • Learn about your microbiome and how you can support the bacteria that are symbiotic with humans.
  • Be grateful. Smile. Hug.

Where we can make a difference, we should, both for ourselves and our future generations. Please discuss your health risks with your physician and strategize a plan to keep yourself healthy for a long time.

Photo © qimono, available under Creative Commons CCO.