By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

Choosing your parents is the single best thing you can do for your health.  While the absurdity of this is apparent, it only serves to illustrate how vital genetics plays in your wellbeing.

We are very much what those little double strands of DNA say we are, from the color of our eyes to the size of our feet.  There is a certain inevitability baked into our genetic code, but researchers are now claiming that we are not completely at the mercy of our chromosonal captors.

When I was in medical school (approximately a few decades after the dinosaurs), we were taught that if your genes said you were at risk for some type of cancer, well then, your fate was sealed.  There was nothing you could do, ingest or believe that would alter that risk.  Thanks mom and dad!  Turn the wheel of science up 40 years and now that teaching is about as valid as honesty from politicians.  Enter the world of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is simply the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.  Before your brain explodes, this means that there are some things, like nutrition and exercise, that can actually change how your genes do their thing.

Epigenetics tells us that the expression of things like metabolism and physical traits may be “turned on” or “turned off” by a variety of mechanisms including nutrition.  So two people with similar genes, say for some metabolic pathway, may end up expressing completely different characteristics due to an epigenetic (i.e. over genetics) manipulation.  Same genes, different outcome!  In essence this means that in some cases, you are not a prisoner of your parental inheritance.  Let me give you a specific example, especially appropriate for moms.

Mounting evidence indicates that over nutrition (high sugar intake) and under nutrition (poor quality or quantity) can elicit epigenetic control on developing offspring.  Both human and animal studies show that what a mom eats can effect her child’s likelihood of developing high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes in early adulthood.

In rats, maternal protein restriction in pregnancy leads to higher blood pressure, impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and altered hepatic architecture and function in the adult offspring. 

A study of survivors of the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 showed that when pregnant women were exposed to famine conditions, their children were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

More recently, another animal study indicated that mother rats fed a diet high in fructose had a greater predisposition to chronic disease in their offspring.  The authors concluded, “Maternal intake of high fructose leads to fetal programming of adult obesity, hypertensionand metabolic dysfunction, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease. This fetal programming is more pronounced in female offspring.”   The authors had no explanation as to why this phenomenon was more prevalent in girls and suggested more research was needed.

Other studies suggest that eating a healthy diet during pregnancy, including some good sources of omega-3 fats (e.g. oily fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel) may give some protection against chronic diseases such as asthma, possibly by having a beneficial effect on the immune system.

The take home message is two fold.  First, maternal nutrition is even more important than originally thought.  Fortunately the benefits can be positive as well as negative, and this can be very motivational for pregnant women.  Second, we are not simply products of our genes as healthy choices and behaviors can offset some of the negative risk factors we can’t control.

Oh…and it’s not limited to moms. New published research indicates that a child’s capacity for learning could actually be boosted as a result of the physical and mental exercise that their fathers carried out before they were born.

These are just a few examples of how epigenetics are changing how we view our genetic heritage.  It’s encouraging that those of us saddled with risk factors for things like heart disease and cancer don’t just have to lie down and take it.  We can take the genes by the horns and reduce these risks, and even potentially change the fate of generations to come.

This article appears in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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