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Epigenetics, Methylation
How Genes Can Be Influenced

by Gay B. Ben Tré

When scientists completed the map of the 20,000 plus genes that provide a blueprint for our cells in 2003—an effort known as The Human Genome Project—it was expected that this map would open the door to controlling or eradicating disease. Since then, approximately 10,000 single gene mutations that are responsible for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s and sickle cell have been identified, and medical treatments are being targeted to these genes.

But many other chronic and commonly occurring diseases such as arthritis, auto immune, depression, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and certain cancers (such as breast and colorectal) have been found to involve as many as 100 genes. Not only are many genes involved, they also interact in ways that vary with the individual, thus presenting tremendous challenges to effective medical treatment.

WHAT IS EPIGENETICS?

It is the study of inheritable changes in the expression of genes. In other words, epigenetics is the study of the control of genes by factors other than the genes themselves. Throughout our lives, our cells are responding to epigenetic factors. These epigenetic factors are so powerful that they can actually switch genes on, causing them to “express”, or switch them off, causing them to “silence”.

In utero and during childhood, epigenetics is essential to normal growth and development. As adults, epigenetic switching is required to enable us to adapt to the changing demands of our environment at work and home. Factors that influence health-enhancing epigenetic switching include physical safety, good nutrition, physical activity, adequate sleep and connection with others.

The major factors that negatively influence the epigenetic control of genes include poor nutrition in utero and childhood, exposure to environmental toxins or radiation, ingestion of drugs/pharmaceuticals, diet, aging, and traumatic stress, including injuries, surgery, divorce, death of a close family member, starvation, war, migration, abuse and neglect, among others.

GENES DON’T HAVE TO DETERMINE ONE’S HEALTH

The ability of epigenetic factors to activate and silence genes turns out to provide the key to why the genes individuals inherit don’t have to determine one’s health. One of the main epigenetic mechanisms used by the cells to silence genes is called methylation. This is a chemical process by which groups of methyl molecules attach to genes, tagging or

marking them for silence. If genes are inherited that contribute to one of the common complex diseases mentioned earlier, the onset of disease can be prevented with behaviors and choices that support methylation.

Methylation is also critically important in childhood, both to prevent childhood disease and also to support optimal growth and development. If methylation is not fully functioning right from conception, there can be disastrous results including miscarriage, premature birth, congenital birth defects and neurological impairment.

The top causes of inadequate methylation include poor diet, smoking, low stomach acid, digestive malabsorption, certain medications, toxicity and mutations or defects in the genes directly responsible for the methylation cycle activity. It is currently estimated that 20 to 55 percent of Americans have mutations/defects in the genes that regulate methylation. Fortunately, advancements in genetic testing have made it possible for individuals to access affordable, over-the-counter genetic profiling to learn whether or not they have these mutations.

NUTRIGENOMICS

As scientific research on the effects of epigenetic signaling and methylation has progressed, another new field, nutrigenomics, has evolved. According to Dr. Amy Yasko, an expert in the field of DNA/RNA-based diagnostics and therapeutics, and consultant to the medical and research community, “Nutrigenomics is the study and practice of how natural products and supplements can interact with particular genes to decrease the risk of diseases and postpone aging.”

Many of the causes of inadequate methylation can be addressed by such behavioral changes as stopping smoking, improving nutrition and reducing stress. However, if methylation is being impacted by factors out of one’s control including genetic mutations, it is still possible to improve the situation with nutrigenomic supplementation. Nutrigenomic supplementing can provide extra, targeted support to bypass or compensate for mutated, defective genes. Nutrigenomic supplementation can also improve the nutrition provided by diet and increase the absorption and use of nutrients in the food one eats.

It should be noted, however, that because certain cellular processes will be speeded up, it’s important to supplement carefully and gradually. If change happens too quickly, unwanted and unpleasant symptoms can result in the short term from detoxing and overloading the body with amino acids, neurotransmitters and hormones that can’t be cleared fast enough.

Of more concern, the growth of certain cancer tumors may be speeded up. Enhanced methylation can cause the silencing of tumor suppressor genes and encourage the expression of oncogenes. Likewise, diseases caused by genes with chromosomal instability may also speed up, as well as certain forms of childhood mental retardation.

While individuals have no control over their genetic makeup, by understanding epigenetics and the role it plays in determining one’s health, individuals can take steps to negate or compensate for certain genetic defects as well as eliminate the impact of negative epigenetic factors. Through monitoring and enacting a program to signal their genes, individuals can positively influence the well-being and slow the aging process of themselves and their children.

Gay BenTré, D.Ac., R.N. is owner of Thrive Health Solutions, located at 2 Richmond Square,Ste. 105, Providence. For more information, call 401-207-4670 or visit DrGayBentre.com.