Some ancient things are very wonderful, but archaic ideas, like the notion that your genetic heritage is in charge of your health and longevity, should go into the recycle bin. Just because your mom has diabetes and so did her mom, and your dad has heart disease and so did his dad, it does not follow that you might as well eat cake and bacon because you are destined to die young. The science of nutritional genomics, or nutrigenomics, is showing us that
environmental signals, such as food, are a big part of the instructions you send your genes about what you want them to do instructions that turn the genes on or off, depending. In the words of one health pundit, "Genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger." I implore you to speak to your genes with fabulous food I promise you they are listening.
One of the ways food elements talk to your genes involves a process called DNA methylation, where molecule clumps called methyl donors are stuck onto strands of DNA and make parts of them invisible, like that cloak thing Harry Potter had. (My apologies to any real scientists reading this, but I think that rough analogies will serve our purposes here.) There is a lot of research about DNA methylation going on, because it appears to silence genes associated with
cancers and other diseases you don't want. Many good foods contain methyl donors: leafy green vegetables, garlic and onions, beans, eggs for starters.
Consider now epigenetics, an emerging field that's making even complexity-loving scientists go a little cross-eyed. Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression across generations which are not reflected in structural changes in DNA. So while nutri-genomics is showing that food substances (such as methyl donors) can affect gene expression in an individual, epigenetics indicates that in some circumstances the same substances can talk to the DNA
switches in an individual's offspring. In animal studies, it appears that the prenatal environment (which includes food) may be talking not only to your genes, but to your kids' genes, and even their kids' genes. (I am not making this up.)
For instance epigeneticians (?) have observed that special fat golden lab mice called Agouti mice, who die young because they are particularly prone to obesity, diabetes and cancer (so they are bred for use in research about those diseases in humans) will give birth to slim, long-lived, dark brown babies who are NOT prone to obesity, diabetes, and cancer but only if the mother mice are given a special diet that is rich in DNA methylators. These would be
the B vitamins including folic acid and B12, zinc, betaine, choline, and methionine familiar and common food elements all (see methyl donor list above.)
But wait, there's more! In further studies of these Agouti mice, the babies also came out healthy and dark when their GRANDMOTHERS ate the supplemented diet while pregnant with the mice who eventually become mouse moms themselves.
OK, do you get this? This is not a genetic mutation these animals are all genetically identical. This is food substances changing the expression of disease-related genes, transgenerationally. Nothing but nutrients and the life expectancy of many baby mice increases. This is huge.
Can we extrapolate from mice to people as we ponder our own epidemics of obesity and diabetes and premature death? Or as we try to redesign our medical system as it crumbles under the weight of an aging population riddled with lifestyle diseases? Of course not. Still, epigenetics has the potential to reveal the long-term impact of our nutrition culture and polices and perhaps start to craft part of a solution. Since we live in a culture where pregnant women
do not have universal access to good food and prenatal care, and where the WIC program only very recently started providing fruits and vegetables in addition to processed cheese and white bread, there's lots of room for improvement. Start locally there are pregnant people everywhere.
As always, mothers are on the front line of social evolution for them, considering the impact of one's actions on the next seven generations is not just an intellectual exercise. In a system that does not have a lot to offer in terms of prevention, there is a twinkle of promise here, so please stay tuned. Seriously, it's the start of something big!